Category Archives: People

Murdering the Art of Conversation: a silent death

I’ve been contemplating a list of banned phrases lately for my classroom walls. That may seem rather counterintuitive for a person whose profession largely involves the expansion of vocabularies, but I promise there is a benign intent here.

You see Japanese and English are frankly about as disparate as two languages could ever hope to be. It may not be a particularly positive position to take but inevitably when encountering things that can limit or impede your progress in acquiring a new tongue, a language barrier that has more in common with a chasm than a wall is going to be rather hard to miss as you plunge gormlessly into it, your shoelaces artfully tied together in knots of misused grammar.

So yes, it’s hard work, no one ever said learning something as powerful, beautiful and profound as a language would be easy. But the reality is that these natural obstacles can seem like little more than a speed bump when you consider some of the monuments to frustration that students themselves construct to block their way.

In adult classes students are generally interested in improving their conversational skills so I begin every lesson with something open ended to allow them to flex their linguistic muscles, to let them make use of all their years of hard work. So how do many of them choose to answer? By slashing the throat of the conversation, by stamping on the budding tête-à-tête and blowing out the candles early on any possible discussion with a, “So-so” or, “Nothing special.”

It’s usually at this point that I remember that not only does my job involve teaching English but for some people the basic tenets of a conversation. However, if these are self-constructed walls then the foundations they rest on are of a more professional variety. You’d have to go to school for this kind of solid bedrock.

When I asked my sixteen-year-old student last week what he’d done that week I was expecting a list of exams, such is the life of the average high school kid.  So when he mentioned he’d had an English test I inquired further, what exactly had he done?

“Did you have to speak in the test?”


“Any listening?”


“So just writing?”


“So what was the subject of the test?”

“Oral communication.”

Teacher’s brain explodes in blind fury within the confines of his cranium.

Of course it was.



Worse than a Clown: How to Metamorphose like Marcel Marceau

If you’re brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, you might one day venture across the seas to a faraway land with little grasp of the native language and attempt to teach them your own peculiarly nuanced interpretation of your own native tongue.

Your first task, learning to simplify your natural language, to slow it down, to enunciate and avoid slang at all costs is something you expect to do. Thinking about how to describe things in the simplest terms possible will come soon after.

These developments you might consider only natural. After all you’ve experienced someone doing this for you first hand, though you don’t remember it. We all do it for young children, we break down our speech into smaller and smaller fragments, reducing an idea to its core meaning, into a single phrase to make it that much simpler to grasp. It feels only natural to do it for the incredibly young; it feels rather patronizing (though often entirely necessary) to do so for adults.

So you get used to this process, over time you begin to get more skillful at distilling ideas, getting to the bare bones of it all. But there will come a point when you realise it’s gone too far. You’ve begun to warp out of shape.

Specifically into the shape of random adjectives, verbs and abstract concepts galore. You’ve boiled beauty and ugly down into silly faces and you’ve taken moral grey areas and difficult definitions and dragged them kicking and screaming into the black and white.

On a side note: thank you to Tiger Woods for providing the distinction between, ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment.’ Alas the Japanese only have one word for the two concepts, but you’ve cleared it right up for them. 

You kinda thought you’d turn into a clown working with kids, but this is worse. You see, most of the time you’re not even an actor. That sordid career choice you could live with. No, this horror is different; it has crept up on you and encased you in an invisible box that no one else can see or appreciate (well maybe the French). You’re pawing at the walls, a desperate look painted on your pale face as you scream the words in silence…

FAFQ: Frequently Asked Foolish Questions

It’s said that ignorance is bliss. Whoever said that clearly never lived in a foreign country because ignorance as an expat is a downright, infuriating, maddening and frustrating thing.

I don’t even mean my own ignorance (which is itself, sizable), I mean the ridiculous stuff you are often asked as a foreigner in Japan.

I should make this a touch more polite really. Let’s say, daft questions and comments. As while these inquiries are never ill intentioned, they are rather silly to ask nonetheless. For a while I thought this to be something only the Japanese really did in any great measure:

“Wow, you’re really good at using chopsticks!”

I live here, did you envisage me skewering sushi with a fork? Perhaps a spear? Gobbling it down, nose on the plate, one deep breath away from a head full of wasabi?   

“Are you a foreigner?”

No, no, I’m just a remarkably pasty Japanese person who happens to be half a foot taller than everyone in this supermarket.

“Can you read katakana?”

Noooo, not at all. You caught me, I was merely pretending to read the menu. I just guessed that this place would have coffee and being the improv star I am, I just figured I’d make use of the prop to hand. Ta da…

The first and third comments are pretty common and I don’t take offence, mostly they just result in a slightly confused look across my brow, a raised eyebrow here or there. The second was from a rather rude old man in a supermarket car park. However, with my grandfather having come from Barnsley, that question would be considered to be the height of subtlety back in my house.

I honestly felt before that no one could really top this kind of foolish questioning.

Oh Europe, how you have let me down…

The Guardian’s Paolo Bandini offered this gem from Italy’s Serie A as his personal award for Worst Investigative Journalism in his round-up of the season, when Yuto Nagatomo, who after moving to Italy last summer to join Cesena and then swiftly transferring to Inter Milan in January, was asked by one particularly dumb journalist, “Do you like football?”

One stupid football journalist I can forgive, lord knows we tolerate more than that anyway.

Then I read the end of season Bundesliga round up courtesy of one Raphael Honigstein. When Shinji Kagawa has been one of the stars of the season, despite only playing half of it due to a broken foot, I don’t expect to read that he is deemed a problem by the tabloid Bild because of the following dilemma,

“How the hell are we supposed to tell him apart from [Schalke’s Japanese player] Atsuto Uchida?”

I await the British tabloid response when Ryo Miyaichi makes his debut for Arsenal.

I should probably just apologise to my students now…

Barbershop Barriers: Tales of tiny men and sharp blades

I was sat in an armchair, a very sharp blade pressed to my face. Wielding the blade in question was a tiny Japanese man. Between us we had little means of communication (this being very early in my time in Japan… during my rather less studious period) and I was not entirely sure what he was asking me. He was polite enough to ask it with a smile. Though when coupled with a tiny razor blade… it was, well, more ominous than reassuring.

This was my first trip to the barber in Japan.

Specifically, the barber, not the hairdressers. Japanese men take their coif rather seriously indeed, whereas the sole instructions I have offered at a hair dresser’s or barber’s, whether English or Japanese, for many years now has been nothing more than a, ‘little trim, please.’ Fortunately it was all I needed the first time I visited my local barber in Nagano-Ken. More recent trips have required, “wait, have we met before?” “How do you know my name?” and, “ohhh, I teach your kid.”

A language barrier can be many things, frustrating, funny, confusing and occasionally, well a bit scary. In most day-to-day situations you can rely on folks being patient and understanding of a faltering grasp of their language. The adult population of Japan being generally quite embarrassed by their standard of spoken English (not entirely their fault… but that’s another blog), and being a phenomenally polite people, will generally praise any effort one makes (deserving or otherwise).

However, when talking to children that gap can seem like a chasm. Think of the meandering sentence path of the average five to seven year old and then remove your ability to understand a good chunk of the vocabulary and you’ll be a smidge closer to my position.  The subject of a conversation can burst from absolutely nowhere, they can be incredibly convoluted and just as often as not utterly identical to the conversation you would have in your own native tongue.

In the case of two high school girls this might mean approximately five minutes of back and forth as to how beautiful each other’s hair is, “You think my hair is cute? No not at all, your new haircut is so much cuter…really? No… really, really? No…” Frankly, now that I think about it, this could be two high school boys.

Kindergarten kids can be a joy for this kind of conversation. They will have just learned a new mildly insulting word and simply spend the next ten minutes calling it each other then promptly collapsing in a fit of giggles.

What always amazes me though is the speed at which some kids can ask me questions. One young kid, only five years old burst through the door of the classroom and immediately blurted out,


“Huh? (In Japanese) Say it again but more slowly please.”

Deep breath

“kujyakuwaeigodenandesuka” (twice as fast)

“Write it for me please”

I check the dictionary

“ah! Peacock!”


Proceeds to do a peacock dance that would have been more helpful at the start of the conversation.

However, from time to time, it’s not just a language barrier, rather a pronunciation issue. The double ‘oo’ sound we have in English can initially be quite difficult for kids on first hearing it. They have a tendency just to make a louder ‘o’ noise and as is natural for them add a vowel to the last letter of the word as 99% of Japanese characters have such an ending.

So, there I am teaching some very young kids different jobs/roles; teacher, student, firefighter…cook.

Me: Who’s this? You don’t know. He’s a cook.

Students: Kok!

Awww crap. 

In these situations it’s an easy fix (so long as I don’t laugh) and within a few attempts they pronounce it correctly and significantly less like a Premier League footballer. However, sometimes the situation is reversed.

Me: Who’s this? He’s a barber.

Students collapse in laughter

Students: BABA!

Me: Barber!

Students collapse again

Students: BABA!

I check my dictionary. Possible meanings, Grandmother…horse riding ground…shit.

Oh shit.

Mind the Flash

Japanese people have mastered the camera pose. Crafted it into a fine art and bequeathed it unto their young in such a fashion that one might even begin to think it genetic, a biological imperative perhaps, an evolutionary tweak that has emerged along with the technology it is bonded to.  Because in the mere instant one has to pose correctly for a photograph, the Japanese are already there, two fingers held aloft in a peace sign yelling, “cheezu!” Meanwhile, I’m blinking like a deer in headlights, stunned by the blast of camera flash.

One photographic incident in particular got me thinking. I was at Fuji Q Highland, an Amusement Park that resides at the base of; you’ve guessed it, Mt. Fuji. Inside are three particularly amazing rides: Eejyanaika (translated to, ‘isn’t it good?’ Ok, not everything translates in a cool way), FujiYama and the mind bogglingly fast Dodonpa.

I was waiting to ride the incredibly fast Dodonpa with a friend whom, repeatedly terrified by announcements over the tannoy as to just how fast this machine is, responded with yelps of, ‘muri!’ or in English, ‘impossible, I can’t do it, argh!’ Once aboard the ride she continued to yell this phrase except for one brief moment that I realized had been the camera flash, only to continue on with her cries afterwards. Instinctively, during an experience otherwise dominated by the excitement and fear of the ride she had twisted, smiled and posed for the camera. I on the other hand was more concerned that my cheeks not tear from my face due to the g-force.

Photography is everywhere in Japan. From high quality camera phones to the ever-present purikura. Photography is incorporated into life here in a way that goes beyond any other nation. The stereotype of a Japanese travel group abroad, all wielding state of the art cameras, endlessly pointing and snapping photographs is a well earned and thoroughly deserved one. While the teenage love of purikura, essentially photo booths with a variety of special effects that can be applied to your group photos are so popular that they can be found with ease almost everywhere you go.

That photography is such a significant part of life here is at times hard to believe, particularly when one considers that the camera industry only began to emerge in Japan in the 1930’s. When of course it was beyond the reach of even the comparatively wealthy as,

“In those days, the average starting salary of a graduate of an elite university in Japan who was hired by bank, the best-paying job, was around 70 yen per month. In contrast, the price of the Leica camera was 420 yen.”[1]

Yet, from those early days has sprung an enormous industry fuelled by a love of technology that is visible in all walks of life and among all ages in Japan. At arcades I have seen young people with staggering coordination in pursuit of the high score on a dance machine and a vast number of people with a mind numbing addiction to Pachinko (a low stakes gambling machine with a resemblance to pinball, without any of the skill). While undoubtedly gaming technologies such as these have had and will continue to have such an affect on us, I still believe that the camera and its simple yet beautiful power to capture a moment will continue to be of greater significance. At least until the day that Wii bowling is entered into the Olympics.

However, the truth is, I can’t help but feel that here in Japan is where technology and society meet first. Through computer games, mobile phones, 3D TVs the Japanese people engage with technology faster and with an aplomb that perhaps only South Korea can beat. As such, if technology and biology are going to crash into one another it’ll happen here long before reaching foreign shores.

While visiting home this summer I met a friend of a friend, a Japanese Doctor no less and I took the opportunity to pitch this very theory to him. Essentially I believe that the response to the camera has become so ingrained at a biological level, that just as one can tell the sex of a child from an ultrasound, that one could also tell the child’s ethnicity… well, in one particular case.

Note: This picture is the fine work of Max Joseph, find his blog here.

This blog post was originally featured on as a guest article. The original post can be found here.


Small Town Star: or How to become a minor celebrity in small town Japan

There are certain things I expect when I go to the bakers in my town. One, that I’ll spend way too much money, two, that I’ll glance at the pizza menu with a covetous eye and finally, you know…bread. I wasn’t however, expecting to be told I’m handsome and on top of that famous by my fifty something year old baker. A charming man he may be and a purveyor of quite delicious baguettes most certainly, but previous conversations have tended to remain in the safer arena of weather-based small talk.

Perhaps I ought to offer some context.

The week before this peculiar incident my boss leaned in the window to our office and informed me that a journalist would be attending my next kindergarten class. This was not something I considered to be good news. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching that class. Kindergarten kids are the best students you could possibly hope for. At that age their brains are sponges and so long as new vocabulary is accompanied by a funny picture or a silly look plastered across my ugly mug they’re happy.  However, the content of these lessons is heavily based on my ability to be amusing to five and six year olds. This of course involves no small amount of silly faces, funny voices and general exaggeration of everything I do. In that context I’m not the least bit embarrassed, however add a video camera to the mix and I’ll be more than a bit self-conscious. It would be safe to say that I have little desire to see what my version of pantomime farce looks like on film.

Fortunately, it was a newspaper reporter, so the most embarrassing thing would be what he could potentially write about me and the inevitably bad photo he would, most certainly, get of me. I am quite un-photogenic indeed. Although in all honesty, my feelings towards the camera are more to do with it revealing the reality of my looks than distorting them in any real way. I simply consider ‘un-photogenic’ to be kinder to my fragile ego.

So the lesson rolled around and there sure enough, sat in the corner of the room was the journalist. He asked me no questions. Asked my boss only two i.e. what’s his name and what country is he from? Then appeared markedly uninterested for the remainder of the lesson. Fortunately for me I was teaching ‘like’ to the kids using food so they had far more fun than the yawning reporter. You’d be amazed at how much controversy and yelling of, ‘eeeeeeee?!’ can be elicited by just one child declaring that they don’t like fried chicken.

It’s probably worth noting that this wasn’t the first time I’ve been in the local paper. In small town Japan the possession of a non-Japanese face naturally affords one a certain amount of celebrity. If you are a teacher doubly so as there is little likelihood of privacy when you teach over a hundred people in a place where six degrees of separation is whittled down to two. Add to that a classroom of adorable kids and it becomes incredibly unlikely that one might ever avoid the spotlight in small town Japan.

In all honesty though, despite the minor intrusion and yawning reporters, it’s worth it.

You only have to look at the photo to see that.