Monthly Archives: May 2010

Kyoto Kindness: William Faulkner, Soba and Magic Words

Despite essentially being a long-term tourist in Japan I hate feeling like one of the shutterbug crowd, endlessly holding up people on the pavement taking photos of anything vaguely unfamiliar, which in Japan could mean pretty much anything.

It’s this desire to feel less foreign in a country where I am quite patently so, that often leads me to look for the quieter and the more local in cities teeming with tourists. Despite my rather limited Japanese these smaller places with significantly less English are often all the more friendly than their tourist centric counterparts.

In Kyoto especially, a beautiful city but always bursting with tourists both domestic and foreign, I found joy in escaping the bustle in such places. Not far from Kyoto train station, an enormous and impressive piece of architecture that climbs fifteen stories high (the tenth story being a floor of Ramen restaurants) and as much of a sight to see as the rest of the city, I found refuge and dinner in a small family place. A real hole in the wall in a part of town more populated with Starbucks and McDonald’s than mom and pop places. Finding only one customer but an entire family of chefs inside I perched myself at the bar. My seat was essentially the viewing area of the kitchen. Having worked in a kitchen in my teens as a lowly pot washer, I know that any kitchen willing to be open to the customer’s scrutiny is infinitely more professional as the usual temper tantrums and wannabe rock star egos tend to be reined in. However, whether such a culinary temperament exists in Japan I could not say, I only know that they put many of my former colleagues to shame on every level.

I ordered a bowl of steaming hot soba (buckwheat noodles) and a plate of tempura (deep fried vegetables and sea food). However, I had not counted on the immense generosity of their portions and I soon found myself attempting to eat equal amounts of each so as not to display favouritism to the creation of either chef, who were eyeing my greedy effort from inside the kitchen.

The matriarch of this clan of chefs pottered over towards me almost immediately upon my arrival, intent on a little natter. The usual questions were asked and as usual I answered as best I could. When asked where my hometown is I gave them the name and then so that they were not completely baffled I explained that it was near Manchester. The fate of most northerners abroad is to be from a village or town called NearLeeds or NearManchester.

This leads inevitably towards the question of Soccer (a word that makes my heart break a little every time I hear it) and Manchester Utd. So I explain that Man Utd are in the Premier League., to which they give strong nods to display their appreciation and avid devotion to, ‘English Premier League’, a slightly confused look at mentions of the Championship, and then complete shock that the third tier that is League One even exists; worse still that my team should reside within it. All is redeemed though when I reveal that my team’s mascot is a Yorkshire Terrier. Cuteness and little dogs, this is firm, sure ground in Japanese conversation.

I once revealed that little fact to a class and elicited a sharp gasp of surprise and perhaps terror as one student looked at me and asked, ‘My dog is English?!’

So having dispensed with all the usual questions and complimented their cooking as often as possible I was beginning to run out of Japanese and asked the question I hate to have to ask, ‘do you understand a little English?’ I feel dirty when I ask it because it is essentially an admission that you must rely on their greater understanding of a foreign language, in their own country no less. It feels rude on every level to me, but alas after half an hour of small talk I’m pretty much stuffed and so if they want to ask anything beyond the simple and polite I must rely on their high school English along with my little ipod Japanese dictionary going back and forth each time one of us forgets or doesn’t know a word. So having asked the question but not expecting an affirmative answer I was surprised when she gestured towards her son, the chef who had prepared my delicious tempura. He walked over and in flawless English said, ‘I speak a little English as I used to study English and American Literature in America, I’m particularly fond of William Faulkner.’ At that point, had I not already finished my bowl of soba my jaw would have dropped straight into it.

As much as it surprised me at the time (not that he understood a lot of English, that is quite common) that he spoke with such incredible fluency I can understand why he kept it to himself. In Kyoto I rarely heard a foreign tourist make any attempt at using even a little Japanese, not even something from a phrase book at the very least. No Konnichiwa (hello), no arigatou(thanks), no onegaishimas or o kudasai (please/may I have). I even met a perfectly nice American man who was intent on moving to Japan permanently, who had resided in Kyoto for three months already and had not learned a single word of Japanese. So when a tourist makes even a small attempt to speak Japanese they’ll engage more, talk more and generally be even friendlier than they already are. Yet, should a Japanese person reveal immediately that they understand every tourist perfectly, well that’s just an invitation for tourists to be more demanding and lazy. Not something I’d be keen to encourage either.

Aside from the fact it is simple politeness to do so, there are of course major benefits to speaking at least a little bit of the language, even if you only visit for a little while. Perched at the end of the bar at my hostel in Kyoto I noticed two Australian guys frantically gesturing for ten minutes trying to get one of the bar staff to notice them so they could order a beer. I took my time to finish my beer and then shouted, ‘sumimasen’ the bartender over in a flash, my drink immediately replaced and two stunned Aussies left asking, ‘what was that magic word you used?’

‘Excuse me.’

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The Tuna Taboo: Who ate all the tuna?

Sushi. Sashimi. Both delicious, both abundantly available in supermarkets and restaurants across Japan and of such a quality and price as to ensure that the next time I take a seat at a Yo!Sushi in Britain I know I will be left poverty stricken and disappointed. Prepared perfectly, there are few things that compare in my mind to maguro sashimi (raw tuna).

It elicits a similar response in all my students. Tuna seems to be universally adored in Japan. Indeed so loved, that there appears to be something of a disconnect between the brain and the taste buds.

After months of reading about the rapidly declining tuna population and the failed attempt to prohibit international trade of bluefin tuna from the Atlantic and Mediterranean I decided, perhaps a tad foolishly to inquire what my students thought of the suggested reductions in both catch sizes and trade. Presented to them in a lesson on ‘giving opinions’ as, ‘I think that Japan should fish less tuna.’ Then prompted to agree or disagree. Intended as a sly way of provoking some heated discussion it merely revealed how conflicted they felt about the issue as the clear answer I received was conveyed through a shuffling in their seats and an evident squirm.

Every bloody one of them. Some with a knowing laugh, some with a smile, some with a little look of shame and some with downright defiance. Even when they acknowledged that stocks were rapidly declining they simple could not stand the thought of going without it. To put it in context, it’s equivalent to asking a British person to reduce their intake of bacon sandwiches. Even if a heart attack were imminent and a single two pigs left to breed, they’d still think long and hard about their options; before thinking, sod it I won’t be around to miss them anyway.

A BBC article last month noted that the Japanese consume around 80% of the bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In addition to this, the Japanese Times noted that the Japanese account for around 70% of Pacific tuna caught. More alarming than that figure however is that the average size of the catch is decreasing as over fishing is leading to a younger and younger catch. The danger of this is that if caught before age three the tuna will not have produced any eggs and so the population decline will only accelerate. In fact, the Japan Times article also noted that the average weight of the tuna caught had declined from around 100 to 150kg in the eighties, to around 50kg now.

Obviously this is an unsustainable level of individual indulgence, which all modern diets that contain a daily intake of meat are. Yet, what my students tended to focus on was not that this was not caused by Japanese consumption but rather by Chinese consumption. My students suggested that the increasing popularity of sushi in China means that they consume almost as much raw fish as the Japanese do. Evidently not tuna if the latter statistics are anything to go by and even if China did consume as much, a nation of 1.3billion people consuming as much fish as a country of 120million is more of a damning stat against the Japanese.

One of my students suggested that just as Inuits in Alaska receive special dispensation to hunt whales for food as a particular allowance to their culture, so should the Japanese receive such an allowance for tuna. The problem is Japan is not a small community hunting a sustainable number of an animal. Indeed on a side note they flaunt such bans on hunting regularly with ‘scientific’ catches of whales that inevitably end up on people’s plates. Yet, such a cultural argument isn’t even applicable in this case. Masayuki Komatsu, formerly a researcher at Japan’s Fisheries Agency, referenced in a great article in the Financial Times, noted that the year round consumption of tuna is in reality far from the traditional diet of the Japanese and that eating fish as they come into season and as such are found in greater abundance is, ‘the true dietary culture of the Japanese people’.

Yet, for all the damning figures any change in the approach to tuna fishing and consumption in Japan will have to come from Japan and not international rapprochement. The thing is, we’re simply not seen as ‘getting’ how the Japanese feel about tuna. If the regular closing of the Tokyo ,Tsukiji fish market auction room, due to foreigners touching the incredibly expensive fish, is anything to go by, they might be right.

Quality Rail Service? No Thank You, I’m English.

It’s too efficient. It’s too clean. It’s too stable, too fast, too damn everything. It’s just too bloody sanitized. Where’s the romance of it? The grit, the grime and the inevitable screw-ups. The human element if you will.

When you think of technology, aside from the inevitable coveting of a new Apple toy (the latest being the iDalek), you think quite classically about the whole thing. Computers, mobile phones, great, big, enormous televisions that replace the supporting wall in your house. But ask someone to think about technology in Japan and they think of, in all likelihood, one of two things. If like me, you’re just an oversized child, robots. However, if you’re an individual who has delusions of being a ‘grown up’ then the Shinkansen aka the Bullet Train, is probably what you’ll envisage. Gleaming white and gliding effortlessly into a station at the very second it was due to arrive and leaving mere moments later. Traversing incredible distances in a few hours. Passing through cities with enough stealth and speed to rival the pink panther on his most mischievous of days. Moving so fast as to inspire musicals on roller-skates. Yes I just referenced Starlight Express and yes I’m regretting it already.

Herein lies my problem with the Shinkansen. After that, ‘holy crap this thing is fast’ moment I kind of fall out of love with the thing. A lifetime of shoddy British rail travel and crumbling buses means that I expect a certain amount of wastefulness, cock-ups and poor planning as part of the reality of any journey. In fact if I can’t complain about a journey once it’s over I hardly feel like I’ve traveled at all.

Yet, British rail for all its faults can’t compare to the sheer madness of traveling the US by Amtrak. Which is probably why, two years after I crossed the US by train with a friend, I find myself still telling stories from the journey, mostly about Jeanette.

Now Jeanette was crazy. Caring, scarily devoted to her job, but most of all crazy. With a stereotype, pitch perfect southern drawl she announced her presence to the whole train over the tannoy, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I’m here to take care of y’all.’ The lounge car was where the poverty stricken of us gathered to buy microwave foods, sweets and beer to eat in our seats as we watched those with more money and sense making their way to the restaurant car. However, we hadn’t reckoned on Jeanette’s uncanny ability to swindle some real food from that very car to dispense to us poor, sugar high, vitamin deprived proles in the non-sleeper cars on this epic three day (note: it should have taken a little over two days but there were flood waters and break downs to contend with) cross country jaunt. She announced with cheery glee, ‘Good news y’all, I have managed to acquire four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners, that’s four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners please come down to the lounge car to sign your name. My name is Jeanette, I’m down in the Lounge car, come on down, I will take care of you.’ What a delightful woman, if somewhat mad, we thought.

Then it happened, in some cruel twist those chicken dinners became a continual reminder of the hell of traveling by Amtrak, who it seems have a rather lax policy in regards to who gets access to the tannoy system. Twenty minutes after the initial announcement she returned to brighten our day, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I now have thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, I repeat, thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, my name is Jeanette, come on down to the lounge car to sign your name, this is Jeanette I will take care of you.’ It continued much the same for hours, as every twenty minutes or so elapsed Jeanette would return with her rolling commentary on the number of chicken dinners in her possession.

To our and clearly Jeanette’s horror the initial flurry of signatures would not last. The number had declined all the way down to fourteen but demand had ebbed away. We were nearly there, the home stretch in sight and the chicken blocking our path rapidly being placed in the soon to be eaten pile. While the fowl remaining were not disappearing as quickly as wished, we had hope and a determination to survive this variation on water torture. Evidently Jeanette was possessed of similar reserves.

After a brief stop at one of the many little stations we would pause at for smoking breaks and quick fix repairs to the crumbling engine she made another announcement, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car. Good News y’all, I have managed to acquire an extra four- teeeeeen chi-ken din-ners, I now have twen-tee-eight chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners for this eve-nin, please come on down to the lounge car and sign your name. This is Jeanette in the lounge car, come on down, we will take care of you.’

Soon after, a young man by the name of Randy, who we had met earlier in our long journey, ambled over to where my friend and I sat and leaned over to whisper his question. His eyes suggested a sense of guilt, an understanding that what he was about to ask us was outside of what society deems acceptable, beyond the pale indeed. He looked at us and muttered his opening salvo, ‘I was just wondering, when was the last time you guys ate some real food?’ Looking at the net pouch on the back of the seats in front of us, at the remains of skittle wrappers and crisp packets, we were forced to admit that real food was perhaps a distant memory now. Leaning ever closer he asked us in the whispered tones of a man looking to get his fix, ‘I was thinking about maybe goin’ to get one of those chi-ken din-ners, you wanna get some too?’

Unfortunately, if such character exists on Japanese trains I’ve yet to experience it. Much of Japanese life may seem a little mad at times, but alas they retain their sanity while traveling. Well, so long as you ignore the old guy admiring the centerfold in his porno mag.

Coping with Old Age

Crammed in, squashed, crushed and suffocating from a heady mix of ineffective deodorant and sweat, rattling along in the bus towards the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. I had made the fatal mistake of getting on the bus just before the end of the school day. My punishment for such foolish timing would be to spend the journey getting repeatedly jabbed in the ribs by errant school bags, while simultaneously playing catch with a pensioner. By which I mean I was repeatedly catching a little old pensioner before he fell over and rolled down to the back of the bus to become a sprawling mess of broken and shattered limbs. It seems he had decided that holding onto one of the many hand holds dangling above was simply too much of an effort, especially when he could position himself just ahead of me and fractionally to the left so that with every lurching motion the bus made as it departed from each successive stop he would fly back into my quickly outstretched arm. Safe from the floor and a sea of shuffling feet he would nonchalantly rebalance himself, adjust his footing and prepare for the next sharp jerk as the bus jolted back to life. He seemed quite content and rather amused with the arrangement.

Flying pensioners are not a usual feature of Japan, but the amusement and total lack of anxiety in regard to life and its various predicaments is.  Older people in Japan are simply far more confident and relaxed than their western counterparts. It’s a peculiar reversal of the West where confidence is deemed to be predominantly a trait of the young. Yet here in Japan, the combination of a deep held reverence for seniority and a school system quite devoid of opportunities for individual creativity often means that the spontaneity and imagination usually associated with a young mind at play are more evident in the older generation. While my teenage students sometime struggle to come up with a daft answer to a question my older ones are never short of self-deprecating and lightening fast witticisms.

That confidence can however, have a more dangerous side. Little old people behind the wheel of an enormous car are a continual fear of mine. You see, Japan’s roads are quite often remarkably narrow and in my part of Japan also have open drainage along the sides. These open drains are about 60cm deep so if a single tyre slips into one of these you’re going to come to a rather abrupt and dangerous halt. I have been dreading accidently tumbling into one these from the moment I first got in a car here. However, what I hadn’t initially feared, though now I do, is the total disregard for safety exhibited by little old men in enormous cars. Often careening onto my side of the road and then skimming past me while I hug the edge of the road, a minor precipice to my left and an oblivious geriatric to my right. All the while, the other old folks in cheap mini trucks, perfectly narrow and nippy for Japan’s tiny roads are king. They fly around corners, bends and down hills secure in the knowledge that they can dart through any gap no matter how small. A little more manic in their approach to driving than the former, but at least they can see over the steering wheel and are unlikely to send me flying into a ditch at the side of the road. I hope.

There is a passion for living and learning that doesn’t seem to fade in old age in Japan, if anything it is rejuvenated in retirement, once free of the crushing grind of standard Japanese working hours. I teach many people over the age of sixty, some even edging closer to eighty these days and all of them are in possession of a keen desire to learn, to travel, to discover new things and to ask me endless questions covering the mundane, the peculiar and the downright personal.

This week they’ve been engaging with British politics and the unusual turn it has taken of late. Questions have often focused on the age of the candidates (our young Tory PM elicited a great deal of surprise, perhaps more surprisingly they felt Japanese politics could use a similar injection of youth), their backgrounds and what will change in Britain as a result. Considering the political upheaval and general distrust of all politicians in Japan they have found British politics to be an interesting comparison. They also discussed the seemingly little known influence on and relationship that Britain has had with Japan for just short of four hundred years now.

I am all the more impressed with the older generation of Japan as it has lived through changes that have occurred at an almost impossible rate. Japan never does things by half. In April 1895 one Lord Charles Beresford, who was quoted in the Times of London, perhaps summed up best just how rapid modernization has been and continues to be in Japan,

‘Japan has within 40 years gone through the various administrative phases that occupied England about 800 years and Rome about 600, and I am loath to say that anything is impossible with her.’

The people here are able to come to grips with new technology and a changing world with seeming ease. Yet, there is one thing that they will always struggle with, which seems petty to mention, but to be honest, they often have difficulty with their pronunciation of ‘R’ and ‘L’ the result being that the two are often transposed. Not that big a deal really, unless of course they want to discuss the British Election.

Ka-Pu Ka-Pu Ka-Pu Hiroshima!

The locals only want to know one thing when you’re a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) in Hiroshima. They ask the question, lean in a little too closely with a look of deep intrigue on their faces, waiting to nod along with a positive answer. Waiting to affirm, that indeed this lonely gaijin knows the truth of this fair city. So I tell them my answer, and it’s the only one they want to hear, ‘The okonomiyaki is delicious’.

Perhaps you were expecting a different question? One a little more awkward shall we say than, ‘What do you think of okonomiyaki?’ Ok, well, let me explain the joys of this local delight first and I’ll get back to that elephant in the room.

Okonomyaki is a kind of Japanese pancake, which in Hiroshima takes on Jenga like proportions. First the batter is poured onto a hot teppan (an iron plate), then topped with four times as much cabbage as the recipe usually suggests, it’s the Hiroshima way. After this, scallops, pork and any other meat they feel like is flung in and topped with noodles, egg and okonomiyaki sauce. When the cook is happy with their towering creation the whole thing is flipped and squashed flat. Leaving you to eat a densely packed, yet immensely tasty bit of grub straight off the teppan.

Of course there is another question in Hiroshima that is far more difficult to answer. I knew it was coming. I could feel sweat forming on the back of my neck, hairs standing on end and a nervous flutter in my stomach where previously the delights of okonomiyaki had lain undisturbed.  The question was coming. I could feel it and I’d have to give a diplomatic answer. It’s really a very sensitive topic you know. So with what knowledge I had garnered in the course of the evening I did my best to answer.  I took a deep breath and said, ‘The Hiroshima Carp were alright, but the atmosphere was great.’ They sighed at the sad truth and nodded in agreement. They know their baseball team sucks.

Ok, maybe you were expecting something more taboo, perhaps on nuclear weapons? The thing is these really were the questions I was asked first and most frequently. Obviously Hiroshima is always going to be associated with that tragic day in history. However, to focus on that moment alone, which countless historians and witness testimonies have articulated far better than I ever could, would do a great disservice to what the people of Hiroshima have achieved since that fateful day.

The city is a vibrant, welcoming place and like any place with such a harrowing history it is more interested in displaying its achievements than rehashing wounds with anyone of a foreign persuasion who happens to walk by. They live contrapuntally with the scar, they know it’s there and do not seem to see much need in reminding themselves of it beyond the already incredible efforts they have made in constructing a moving and eloquently realised museum and peace park that balances the difficult task of conveying the breadth of the tragedy without editing an uncomfortable history for all nations involved. The facts are presented, the written, pictorial, audio and video testimonies line every inch and the physical traces remain. No one who visits this place could be left in any doubt about what occurred. But if you wish to visit, please do not let the sad history of Hiroshima overshadow the present and future achievements of its people and friends.

And those people are wonderful, if just a touch mad.

On my second night in Hiroshima I found myself just a little cold and sitting in the one year old Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, the home of the Hiroshima Carp. Their name ought to have told me what to expect really. The Yomiuri Giants, The Chunichi Dragons, The Hanshin Tigers, The Hiroshima… I’m sorry, did you say Carp? Actually, not quite. Thanks to the joys of the Japanese writing system, with loan words being written in katakana the actual word is carpu. Which when sung en masse by the crowd is pretty fantastic. Have a listen, minus (unfortunately) the gloriously mad crowd.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B1gqR3AKKo&feature=related

I love the chorus and yes… I did sing along.

That, for those of you had a listen is the Hiroshima Fight song from the Seventh Inning. Just before this song the fans all start preparing for the grand finale. Strangely I didn’t notice this build up until it reached the, ‘what the f…’ stage. I had already spotted the opposing team’s, the Hanshin Tigers, fans blowing up some long yellow balloons and thought nothing of it. At least until I suddenly realized I was surrounded by very pink, very long, somewhat phallic pink balloons.  Which were released at the climax of the song. Make of that what you will.

I’ve no idea why I think this, but in my mind there’s something a little defeatist about having a Carp as a mascot. Almost as bad as having a cuddly Terrier as your mascot I soon discovered. Sat in a bar after the game, I was asked if I watched the Premier League. Revealing that there is more than one level of football in England, and that my team, Huddersfield Town, currently reside in the third tier of it seemed to be a large enough surprise in and of itself. Explaining that in addition to this, that our fearsome mascot is a waddling ball of fluff known as Terry the Terrier elicited more than a little giggling and a substantial cry of, ‘Kawaii des ne!/It’s cute isn’t it!!’

Evidently I’m in no position to mock a Carpu.

It’s hard not to feel a connection with this city. It has a bustling and friendly nightlife. Trams that rattle up and down its roads. Tiny okonomiyaki restaurants run by old women, seemingly just to cook for friends and have the occasional natter with the odd gaijin. A devoted yet mildly deluded set of baseball fans (I can certainly relate to fans like that) and complete strangers willing to pull up a stool and chat about the subjects you least expect; Iron Maiden and fine bourbons one evening. You start to feel more welcome than in the big crush of Tokyo, or the beautiful yet tourist centric Kyoto. That is at least until you look up from that first sip of beer at the baseball and think, hold on, that lone white guy sat by himself, with glasses and a beer on the big screen looks awfully familiar…

Mistreated Muppets

One of the things you have to deal with in a cram school is the seemingly permanent comatose state of high school students. Being a workaholic in Japan seems to be about standard and the kids aren’t immune from it either. If anything they suffer from this affliction in greater numbers. Before the last set of university entrance exams it was a common occurrence to find a sleeping student in my classroom (before, not during my lessons thank you very much), sprawled across four seats with an eye mask on. Inevitably I’d have to wake them from this slumber before I could teach my next lesson. Despite feeling guilty at doing so, it was becoming such a frequent event I was beginning to contemplate the purchase of an air horn or at least a very large shoehorn with which to pry slumbering students from their makeshift nests built from konbini (convenience store) bought bento boxes, cheap noodles and empty bottles of coffee and green tea.

Randomly sleeping Japanese folk is a surprisingly common sight in Japan, particularly on public transport. I could try to describe how impressive it is, but I couldn’t do the sheer skill involved justice, so instead I’ll just offer up this link http://www.kirainet.com/english/japanese-sleeping/

Beyond my high school kids it’s not uncommon for my adult students to roll into a class straight from finishing their workday. Add to these late finishes the tendency to work weekends and you get some very sleepy people. As such I try to do my best to keep things as entertaining as possible. When that’s not possible, as odd and peculiar as possible will simply have to do.

The other week I was teaching yet another ‘thrilling’ aspect of English Grammar, anticipating a class of high school students who would yawn at any vaguely normal use of English I thought it best to combine oddness with one of their favourite sources of kawaii (the Japanese for ‘cute’ – a lengthy explanation of the Japanese adoration of all things cute will have to wait for another time), Sesame Street. It doesn’t matter who I’m teaching, from Kindergarten to my OAPs, Sesame Street somehow infiltrates my lesson via pencil cases and binders, declaring ‘Elmo loves them’ or an allegiance to Cookie Monster. So I dropped into the list of questions, the following:

“You have found Kermit the Frog tied up in your basement. What will you do?’

Unlike the standard, dreary, but infinitely more helpful questions possible, this one has the advantage of making my students descend across the table trying to get a better look at the slip of paper it’s written on. So yes, it did the trick, they were laughing and a bit confused, but most importantly conscious for the rest of the lesson. What was most peculiar was that the answers they offered were all tame, ‘I would free him’, ‘I would take a picture with him’, ‘I would untie him’.

Fortunately I can rely on my adults to be truly odd. One engineer I teach suggested he would show Kermit to his daughter, but wouldn’t untie him first. There Kermit would hang from the hand that held him aloft, by the ropes binding his wrists, dangling like the prize kill of a hunting trip, or maybe from his ankles like the catch of the day. I can only imagine the terror this might inspire in a child. In fairness she’d probably just squeal ‘Kawaii’ and claim him for her own, waiting for the Stockholm syndrome to kick in.

Another reacted like he’d just found a Toyota in his basement and said, ‘I would close the door and think I had not seen anything – oh and whistling.’ The next said he’d throw him into the neighbouring garden, still bound and gagged, leaving the incriminating and mistreated Muppet drowning face down in a rice paddy. Now amongst a group of twenty to thirty something year old male engineers this kind of comic evil doing is just fine. In fact it’s one of the best parts of my job.

The only real awkward moment came when I taught another class of adults that week. Having explained what ‘tied up’ meant by putting my wrists together and wrapping an imaginary rope around them, one of my students burst out, ‘Ah!! Like bondage?’ At which point another student began mumbling the word as she searched her dictionary for the latest bit of English vocabulary.

Igirisu-jin in Nippon

Konbanwaa

I should perhaps explain the title. I am in no way squidgy. Lets make that abundantly clear. Squidginess is not something I wish anyone to associate with me. The name stems not from anything stay puft, but rather from some very imaginative students in my elementary class. Finding my name, Matthew, when written in katakana to be just close enough to Marshmallow, my students took it upon themselves to rename me, secure in the knowledge that the title they had just bestowed upon me was both hilarious and far more impressive than my given name. I’m inclined to agree. Firstly, because they’re nine years old and a far better judge of such things than I am. Secondly, because I didn’t have much choice in the matter and I thought it best not to fight it. One of them does Judo and I try not to disagree with him when possible, it being rather difficult to teach a class when one of them is attempting with all his tiny might to throw you over his shoulder.

My name is difficult to pronounce for many Japanese kids. If they attempt ‘Matt’ I become, Matto or Match, and Matthew is simply out of the question. The adults I teach who struggle with it simply call me Mashuu (the long vowel at the end is important, without it my name means ‘evil influence’), which is fine, but not nearly as much fun as renaming me and eventually my whole family based on the similarity of their names to food. My students were particularly thrilled to discover my Dad’s name is Peter and so readily converted to Pizza.

Now to explain the rest, as you might have gathered, I’m an English Teacher in Japan. I teach in a cram school, an after school establishment for kids trying to improve their English and Maths skills with future, mind numbing, life sapping, Japanese university entrance exams in mind. So from four pm until nine pm I’ll usually be teaching kids from age four to eighteen, with the occasional adult student thrown in for good measure. I also teach kindergarten and a few much older students during the day. This being Nagano, the prefecture with the longest average lifespan, in the country with the longest average lifespan, some of them will probably outlive me.

As to why I’m writing this. Well, I just enjoy it mostly. What will follow as a result of this poorly thought out desire to write will in all likelihood be a mix of curious tales from the Orient along with some ill-conceived mumblings and musings on the things I enjoy, namely literature, politics and the life draining joy and misery of supporting a lower league English football team from the other side of the world.

Oyasumi nasai