Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.