An Introduction to Marshmallow-Go

When I first arrived in Japan it was for one year. I never believed for a moment that I could reach any level of fluency in the language. After five years of French not making a dent in my synapses and three years of Spanish hardly faring better it seemed a fair assumption to make.

Four and a half years on manga still holds little allure for me. I still watch too few Japanese movies. Japanese TV drove me away early on by seemingly being about a collection of thirty or so foreigners lined up like hina no matsuri dolls for the sole purpose of surprising the easily surprised. I still can’t sit seiza style without feeling like I’m about to snap an ankle or lose total feeling below the waist.

Some things have changed though.

My usual rice portion size has tripled. I consume raw fish with a glee that would have made my picky childhood self believe I’d suffered some kind of sharp impact to the head. Earthquakes below a six don’t wake me up anymore. I don’t think Japanese is impossible.

That last one surprised me. More than the sashimi and the seismic shifts the idea that another language could worm its way into my brain seemed utterly unfathomable. How could it hope to make an impact beyond confusion? This collection of sharp angles and squirls that originated from another culture to the already foreign one I found myself in could never make its mark in the same way, surely?

Well, it did. And more than anything else out here, the language itself, the ability to speak to people in day-to-day life far from my English classroom, made me feel at home.

It has also confused, frustrated and annoyed the hell out of me.

I still don’t speak Japanese. I am however, fluent in another variant of the Japanese language. A dialect that emerged in Nagano and then found itself in Shizuoka. It has only one native speaker.

The history of this dialect is rather short.

It is however very reasonably priced and can be found at all good online retailers.

It can be found at Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Amazon Japan. It can also be found, for those with an iPhone, iPad etc. on the iBooks store.

It’s also available via anyone stocked by the publisher BookBaby.

Note: While around sixty percent of the book is new material, a large chunk has come from the blog because it acts as scaffolding to the rest of what I’ve written. The e-book is however still worth every penny you’ll pay… which really isn’t very many at all. 

Thanks again to everyone involved. 

Image

Thanks to the lads over at Asobi K Design for the work on the cover.

 

They Don’t Speak English in Narnia

How would I sum up the feeling of Japan when contemplating English education?

It’s like crawling into a wardrobe and then complaining that you find yourself confronted by a lion and a witch when you were hoping to smoke a pipe with Ian McKellan.

It really does seem to operate in that world of fantasy and unrealistic expectations. Because, while good teachers are hitting their targets, the general public continues to bemoan the fact that Japan remains notoriously poor at English conversation.

This is nothing new. Japan has been collectively wringing its hands for decades about its poor performance in English, and it’s unlikely to quit wringing them anytime soon. Indeed with the Olympics approaching they may be in danger of breaking a figurative finger or two.

So what exactly is the issue?

Well the issue is that even though Japan knows what the myriad reasons for its difficulties are its been reluctant to acknowledge them, much less tackle them.

Indeed, rather than look at systemic reasons why the nation remains poor in its conversational skills students often seem keen to blame themselves or the English language itself, often going so far as to claim that for a Japanese person it is simply too far from their native tongue to get a handle on it. I’ll grant that compared to a native speaker of a European language they have a tougher challenge ahead of them, but the performance of other nations with equally distant or non-existent relations with English would suggest that it is far from the impossible task some would have you believe it is.

The real answer, and it is ridiculously simple, is schools aren’t teaching kids how to speak English.

That’s it.

By and large, with the exception of private and international schools, Japanese schools don’t teach speaking. If the kids come out of the general system able to speak it’s thanks to the efforts of those within the system, the teachers who go the extra mile, the parents who encourage it at home and of course, the students themselves who somehow find the time in their packed schedule to learn something which currently benefits them to the tune of…zero.

Now, I’m a language teacher, I’m not about to claim that learning a foreign language has no benefit. Economically speaking it’s obviously worth it. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio placed the ROI on learning English at as high as a 20% increase in potential earnings. Culturally it’s an enormous boon. In terms of your health, bilingualism is routinely cited as something that potentially reduces the risk of mental difficulties in old age.

There are benefits everywhere you look.

Yet, for the average high school kid in Japan.

Zero.

Because it won’t help them get into university.

And from the moment kids are old enough to be dropped off in a cram school or get fitted for their junior high school uniform that’s the only game in town. So until the target of that game changes let’s just be content with Narnia.

Not every destination is what you expect it to be.

Similarly Shimaguni

There are times when the people I speak to smile a knowing smile, lean their head to a slight angle and utter the word shimaguni.

It is a word that seems to embody far more than its literal meaning. It is as if it encapsulates a single notion with such ease that it leads the speaker as a matter of course to delivering it with peculiar alacrity.

This one word sums up everything you wish to know about Japan and reinforces that which we all know to be true. That Japan is utterly unique. Japan is special and different and home to myriad traditions bathed in foggy mystery. More so than any other nation it is an us that has remained almost completely unblemished by the influence of them.

And it is utter and total nonsense.

Japan is fascinating.It really is. It is interesting. The people by and large are kind and hard working. The food is fantastic. And looking out my window on a sunny day  I remain stunned by the natural beauty of the country in which I live.

And much the same could be said for any other island nation. Because that is what shimaguni means. Island nation.

But that’s never the whole truth of the matter. An island nation has rarely ever truly been totally cut off from the outside world.

Granted, Japan imposed isolation upon itself in the past. When trading with the outside it did its best to keep Japan apart from the world at large, placing the Dutch on Dejima and placing strict restrictions on other nations and the Japanese themselves in regards to trade and probably most importantly in this regard, the promulgation of religion. Yet, even during this period the Tokugawa were regularly visited by Korean delegations, though they never made the return journey. This was far from the total isolation needed to genuinely insulate a culture.

So when those barriers were finally torn down by American pressure, when the Black ships sailed into Edo Bay followed years later by the first American consul in Shimoda, Japan not only embraced the world but chased it down with cries of Wakon Yosai! Japan attempted to learn everything it could from the world and then marry it to their own cultural identity and in many cases they succeed in doing so to this day.

Japan doesn’t need to be unique in every single feature of its culture and heritage in order to be worthy of respect. Nor do the points where we disagree need to be met with a wave of the hand (any hand) that dismisses these points as being examples of how the outside world cannot begin to fathom the Japanese as if they were some homogenous, indistinguishable singular notion.

Recently a colleague of mine lent me an English language book on Japanese culture that had been used as a textbook at her university. She described it as being generally accurate if at times, “overthought.” Wanting to return the favour I picked up a copy of ‘Watching the English’, a book an American friend of mine had recommended to me years ago and found this in the back.

Perhaps it’s time to widen the definition of Shimaguni.

Personally Privileged

A ball flies at over eighty miles an hour makes contact with hewn wood no more than 2.75 inches in diameter and promptly disappears into the distance. A crowd leaps to its feet and roars. I stand up too; a smile on my lips as I get a first hand impression of what from a distance seems to be a singularly simple action. Man throws ball, man hits ball. How hard can this all be really?

A football is booted over sixty yards across field and lands perfectly at the feet of an onrushing German gentleman of Turkish descent who recently relocated from Madrid to north London. He runs a little further before whipping the ball back across the pitch towards the feet of a six-foot-plus Frenchman who proceeds to, with his very first touch, volley the ball past the oncoming fifteen stone of goalkeeper heading his way and into the net. The crowd erupts, my jaw drops.

Technically my jaw dropped long before the ball reached the net. The exact time was when the ball made contact with said German’s left foot and the strip of Velcro he apparently keeps there.

I hand How to be an Alien by George Mikes, a guide to being a foreigner in Britain first published in 1946, at the page where the two lines on sex appear to my Japanese colleague. They read as follows:

Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles.

My colleague smiles, a little nonplussed by the sentence but well aware there’s a joke in there somewhere. I read it and chuckle a little bit still on the fifth reading.

A computer, given one hundred thousand examples can learn to read the number five when handwritten. A computer taught the characteristics of handwriting via the medium of Russian poetry is able read such manner of scrawls after exposure to a mere three hundred poems.

That last example came from the wonderful online magazine Nautilus. Specifically its issue entitled Secret Codes and the piece entitled Teaching Me Softly. The article centered around the notion of ‘privileged information’ or in other words, knowledge gleaned from experience.

This kind of knowledge is why I can appreciate the reaction of baseball fans to a home run without actually appreciating the act itself. I’ve attended about five baseball games in my entire life and I’ve never really, truly played baseball. However, I’ve been and continue to be a long suffering fan of Huddersfield Town so I know what it means to be a fan, to live and die with a score line. As such that moment of pure joy, I get it. I just don’t get the action that prompted it. I understand less of it. I don’t know how hard it is to hit a ball like that, to stand up to the challenge of a ball being thrown like that. I’ll never understand it the same way a kid steeped in baseball will feel that rush.

I do at least understand football. Perhaps I even feel a greater appreciation for it because I was so awful at it; I know that simply trapping a ball, killing it dead in its place takes incredible skill. First touch is a magic and often under appreciated gift. If you’ve never really watched or played football and you’re wondering why one guy on the pitch always seems to have a second longer to make a decision than everyone else, that is it.

That experience is probably the same reason I hardly ever get angry with goalkeepers’ mistakes. After all, I was one of that nut job ilk.  All four feet nothing of me stood shivering between metal poles eight feet high. An education for how unfair life is if ever there were one.

It’s also the same reason why I think foreign language teachers should always have a second language aside from their native tongue. Because, in some small way it puts you in the shoes of every student you’ll ever teach and hopefully in doing so will make you a better teacher; at the very least, a more understanding person in general.

Combine it with being a fan of English football however and it just makes you more impatient with monolingual (and I’m being generous there) fans that complain when a new player or manager has not learned our twisted, garbled and illogical tongue in less than six months.

But privileged information, for all its value, is something of a double-edged sword. Because, while I may know what kouyou (紅葉)and momijigari (紅葉狩り)mean (ok, so might you Japanese speaking reader) and smile when I think of them; anyone who has no clue about what they mean and has never set foot in Japan in the autumn when the leaves are changing and gone autumn leaf viewing, is lucky.

Because, you still get to see it in person for the first time. While I just hope that I never stop seeing it with fresh eyes.

But then again, I’m just privileged to have seen it at all.

            

Tokyo 2020: An Honest Introduction?

I missed the London Olympics, in person at least. Watching from my sofa on the other side of the world I couldn’t quite believe the news at first. It wasn’t the gold medal haul that surprised me, rather the change in national spirit it seemed to engender. A pride at the things a small island nation could do and achieve. More importantly what we could strive to be. We could be an example of a modern and most importantly to my mind, a multi-cultural Britain. One that not only celebrated those differences but achieved more because of them.

It seems I might have a shot at experiencing that buzz in person after all. Tokyo is going to be hosting the 2020 Olympics and I couldn’t be happier for the nation I currently call home. I’m confident Japan will produce a marvel to match that put together in London. Having experienced Japanese fan culture first hand I know that the stadiums will be bouncing and the country will contract Olympic fever in pandemic proportions. It really will be something to behold.

In many ways though, I can’t help but hope that Japan does things a little differently to the UK.

Last year the Guardian wrote this in their editorial response to the games,

The Games have celebrated what is easy to take for granted: that for all its inequalities and struggles our society at its best can be a living example of tolerance and cohesion, of inclusion and possibility.

But looking on from afar I now see a UK that is ‘actively hostile’ to immigration and an immigration system in place that would turn away British friends and their Japanese spouses if they don’t have enough money in the bank.

An approach apparently designed to make sure,

“that spouses coming to live in the UK would not become reliant on the taxpayer for financial support and would be able to integrate effectively.” 

Which is obviously why the government has made that integration easier over the years by cutting funding to ESL courses.

Then just the other day a prominent English footballer got rather ambushed into making jingoistic remarks about what qualifies someone to play for England. He wasn’t saying anything xenophobic really but he probably didn’t realize just how blurred an issue national and ethnic identity is for many of us. Take one Ikechi Anya for example, the Glasgow born, Romanian/Nigerian who plays for the Scottish National football team.

I myself if I were any good at any particular sport would be eligible for the UK, England, Ireland, the USA and probably Japan under residency regulations.

Thankfully my lack of athletic prowess has spared me such a wrenching decision.

But jokes aside, it feels like I’m watching Britain turn its back on the very things we rightly celebrated. A nation built upon, and stronger for a sense of identity that goes beyond where you were born and from whence your grandparents came.

Japan however, isn’t exactly lauded for its sense of racial or ethnic diversity. I’m part of the 0.6% classed as other. The 0.5% and 0.4% of Korean and Chinese ethnicity that make up the rest of the other 1.5% of Japan that isn’t Japanese are in all likelihood third and fourth generation immigrants who know no other culture than that of Japan. As such Japan’s Olympics is probably going to be a celebration of a culture and identity that is far more simply defined.

Now, I’ll make this clear; it is very much a culture that should be celebrated and I look forward to seeing the very best of Japan come 2020 because I’ve already experienced it in the day to day kindness and goodwill offered to me. But I hope, that where Britain welcomed the world and then turned its back on it Japan will do otherwise.

What a legacy Japan could achieve if it not only celebrates the things that make Japan distinct and unique but openly looks to share that with the world and in the process widen the definition of what it is to be Japanese to include the best of other cultures too. Because some of those other cultures are already here, they are already making significant contributions to Japanese life. They raise families, they participate in the local community and they contribute in myriad untold ways to the growth of the nation.

In 2020 Japan will seek to introduce itself to the world.

Hopefully it’ll be an honest introduction.

And unlike Britain the rest of the World will be welcome for more than just the summer.

How Not to Climb Mt. Fuji

Perhaps we had taken too great a heed of the warnings. People cautioning us about the weather, the possible dangers along every path and most importantly, the sheer number of bloody people who attempt to reach the summit during O-bon.

It’s possible it was something else I suppose.

Maybe it was pre-altitude sickness, a little known condition that makes you giddy, foolish and liable to endanger your health while still at the approximate altitude of your sofa. Or might it be that we simply did not put all that much thought into the idea beyond, hey, it is right there, it’d be dumb not to, right?

It’s probably the latter but I’d be happy enough to blame the former if I can get away with it. Because while I’m sure the Internet is full of guides of How to Climb Mt. Fuji!

this, really isn’t that sort of manual.  

We didn’t under plan as such. I mean we certainly weren’t in any danger at any point, but we did vastly under plan compared to how the average Japanese person appears to approach this national-cum-world heritage ascent.

The average Japanese person scales Fuji-san, as the famous peak is known in Japan (and no it doesn’t mean they call him Mr. Fuji), with the full range of equipment one would associate with bearing the full brunt of the elements. Almost every single climber has the obligatory expensive coat, thermal trousers, hiking boots and at the very least a promotional Mt. Fuji climber’s walking stick if not two shiny, what I assume to be carbon fibre, walking sticks.

Now, should the weather take an appalling turn for the worse you might find yourself in need of approximately 50,000 yen’s worth of kit (about 350 pounds) but these people really aren’t the brave the elements type. Nope. These are tour group hikers who take the bus up to the fifth station on the easier trails and are up in about five hours and down in a couple by running down the ash path known as osunabashiri which gets them down to the new fifth station at Gotenba in under three hours easy. It’s mountain climbing for those who want the photograph and the stamp more than the actual experience. Achievement with the minimum of effort. Which makes sense I suppose, I mean you wouldn’t want to sweat in that new gear of yours would you?

Were my climbing partner and I of this ilk?

Ummmmm… not quite.

Were we of the other, conquer the world, abseil down the face of adversity and challenge a crocodile to a wrestle variety?

Definitely not.

We were the average, comparatively unprepared couple of guys who took the longest, steepest route not because it was there but because there would be less queuing and fewer tourists.   

We weren’t total idiots though. We did pop down to the local outdoor store to pick up a headlamp, which is of course necessary when starting the ascent at nine o’clock at night as we were. Though I imagine the whole route would be floodlit were it not for the requirements of World Heritage qualification. For those unaware of Japan’s religious predilections it’s worth noting that Shinto and Buddhism are actually Japan’s second and third most popular religions, Convenience coming in at number one at a Usain Bolt kind of canter.

We actually avoided one such shrine, 7-11 to be precise, but did make time to stop by a HAC Drug, or Health and Communication to give it’s full title. Because when I need to buy energy supplements and cereals bars to provide the power for scaling Fuji I clearly also need to consider my current household supply of slippers and notepads. So where else would I go?

So as you may have ascertained by this point we did indeed survive. Well armed with jelly, value mineral water and cereal bars how could we have failed?

The ascent from the Gotenba New Fifth station took approximately ten hours and another five on the way down as we didn’t go the whole way down via the impressively steep ash and sand flats. We were utterly exhausted, aching all over. We caught the sunrise from the eighth station and then struggled on an hour or so more to the summit. I marched ahead of my friend on the ascent and then was made to look the old man as he made the descent with an effortless cool that my wincing from the pain in my knees couldn’t convey.

Was it worth all the hours of pain? The sweat, the aching limbs, the fine coating of dirt and dust that we were showered in upon our descent?

Definitely.

But the reason was down to good fortune rather than anything we did. The weather was fine. The night sky almost totally clear and sunrise was truly beautiful; all the more so after eight hours of climbing.

But, without that reward for all our efforts?

In that case, I might have been more typically British in regard to the experience.

I believe it always rains on Fujisan. The people who maintain that they saw anything on or from the top of it are people I should like to have witnesses against me, if I were tried for my life, rather than for me. The man who goes up once may be excused, if in other matters he is an average fool, so that you don’t expect much from him; the man who goes up twice should be put out of the world immediately he arrives at the bottom again; and the man who will induce his confiding friend to accompany him up, on any prospect or understanding, is own brother to Judas Iscariot.”  

Eight Years in Japan 1873-1881 by E.G. Holtman. p.231.

Poor chap, all he needed really was a spot of sunshine.

Sunrise from the eighth station.

Sunrise from the eighth station.

Thanks to my good friend over at MonkeyBrainSushi for sending me the link to the wonderful Mr. Holtman’s musings. Check out his blog for some stunning Japan photography. 

Filling a Sweet Tooth

The laser guided tool beeped. That can’t be a good thing can it? Beeping means it’s detected something. Nobody wants the dentist to find something worthy of beeping. Not if beeping is only a prelude to a more dreadful whirring, grinding noise.

26

No drilling.

Phew.

At what number and above do you need to drill?

30

Phew indeed.

…Beep…

This time?

99

Shit.

I am not, nor have I ever really been in possession of a sweet tooth. A salt and vinegar crisps tooth most certainly.  A beer tooth? Some might argue so. But, a sweet tooth? Never.

This was confirmed to me the other day when one of my favourite café’s changed its usual dining hours and I found myself tucking into decadently produced banana and nut pancakes in lieu of actual dinner. I might have slipped into a sugar induced coma in my seat had it not been for my teacher’s proclivity for caffeine beverages of all varieties. Instead the two joined forces and left me rather jittery instead.

The delivery system of my addiction.  Cheers Mum at http://www.shadesofchina.co.uk

The delivery system of my addiction.
Cheers Mum at http://www.shadesofchina.co.uk

So, as it turned out, this was to be my first actual filling not just in Japan but ever. This was not one of the many experiences I’d been dreaming of in the weeks before I first jetted out to Japan.

Golden Temples. Check.

Sushi. Check.

Dental procedures in a language that its own native speakers need rigorous instruction in?

Um, can I skip this part of the package tour please?

The dental nurse who usually takes care of me nipped off to consult with the dentist who almost immediately popped himself onto to a stool beside my chair. Quick chat, reassurance that it’d just be a little bit of drilling and so it wouldn’t hurt really. Fancy new stuff, no chunk of silvery stuff lodged in my jaw, done in twenty minutes, filling speed dried with some tiny heat lamp, towel over my face so the glare from the light above wouldn’t sting my eyes.

This doesn’t seem right to me; all this frosted glass, fancy technology, efficient service and punctuality. Maybe the fact that my local dentist feels a little bit like the shinkansen of dentistry shouldn’t surprise me as I do after all live in the land of the bullet train.

Yet, I don’t have to look far to find the reason I feel nonplussed by it all.

It used to look me right in the face, wipe snot on its shorts if not licking its nostrils clean and stunningly flash a set of gnashers that might cause one of the waxwork models at the Jorvik Viking centre to reconsider flossing.

Yes, otherwise adorable little munchkins who just occasionally try to ram a sly digit up your backside when you’re not watching them, often giggle and grin to reveal teeth utterly rotten and possibly harvested for use in pirate movies and historical accurate Dickensian drama.

Why?

I haven’t the faintest.

Dentists seem to be fairly plentiful. Adults and teenagers alike both make use of braces and eschew them in many cases where teenagers in the UK or US might be desperate for a reconstruction job. Supermarkets sell all manner of dental hygiene stuff and beautiful gleaming smiles assault me from advertising hoardings.

Maybe it’s just not seen to be a necessity by some folks.

Perhaps a perfect set of choppers isn’t an absolute requirement for a well-adjusted life after all.

Whatever the answer, I think I’ll just continue to enjoy the fine service as much as I can and simply do my best not to leap a mile when a four year old smiles at me like an intern at Fagin’s financial services.