Category Archives: Teaching

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.

Advertisements

Real Cuteness Means Hard Work

Bound at the ankle and being screamed at in a high pitch wail, my life in Japan had once again taken a turn into new realms of oddness.

Hold on, take a deep breath.

I don’t live in Tokyo and this story isn’t nearly as dirty as that opening line makes it sound. In truth the whole thing was pretty cute, because the high pitched wail was emanating from a group of fifty of my adorable kindergarten students screaming, “Gambatte Matto Sensei!” Which simply means, “go for it Teacher Matt!”

And my bound ankle? I was in a three-legged race with the other kindergarten teacher.

See? Now you feel bad for leaping to such filthy minded conclusions. There’s your mind launching headlong into to the seedier side of life and I was merely attempting to write a somewhat dramatic introduction to a day in my otherwise uninteresting life by dropping you into the middle of the action. That action being a typical Japanese sports day or undoukai as it is known here in Nippon.

Now just because the kids were adorable doesn’t mean this event was any less rigidly structured than the rest of Japanese society.

It’s always worth remembering that the Japanese don’t do anything by half. You work until you drop, whether in high school or as a suited salary man. Everything must be cute, even the animation on the TV at the Driving License centre imploring you to do up your seat belt or risk a violent, long jumper-esque death through a windshield. Sports clubs require daily dedication. You must maintain true Japanese traditions, shrines and temples dotting the countryside. You must embrace modernity, McDonald’s and KFC dotting the freeways. Spirituality is not hidden away, but a church will sit opposite a hostess bar. Gambling is banned but Pachinko is everywhere. Japan is a safe, relatively crime free country… oh look a Yakuza in the front row of the sumo.

So of course, the Kindergarten Undokai, or sports day doesn’t escape this. Teachers and the PTA had been at the school since around four a.m. Parents and family had begun to arrive at around six a.m. in order to drop their blanket on a prime spectator location. Me? I rolled in at ten thirty and sat with last year’s PTA who were the guests of honour. My job has some minor perks.

What followed would usually fill me with a certain amount of trepidation. I know full well how long Japanese educational events can last, the organization that goes into them and just how tired people look when it’s all done and dusted. Then there’s the speeches…oh lord.

But instead it went by in a flash. The parents of the students made me feel welcome. I chatted in broken Japanese with a member of last years PTA about how cute yet strange the whole day seemed to me and she did her best to explain what the upcoming races were and the rules involved. I attempted to eat as much of the sushi on offer at lunch with the teachers (I’m afraid I rather struggle with the level of Japanese vinegar in the sushi, which is frustrating since the amount seems to vary considerably through the year meaning sometimes I think it is delicious and other times my face turns into a contorted mess) while answering their questions to the best of my abilities. I even raced twice, one time in a centipede race with three of the dads and once in a three-legged race with one of the kindergarten teachers.

The strangest part of the whole day was also possibly the most impressive. The dance routines from the five and six years olds were incredible. Bright costumes, highly choreographed routines displaying an excess of cuteness to match the incredible precision of sixty five year olds dancing in perfect time.

That’s kind of Japan in a nutshell really, even their love of all things kawai or cute isn’t free of a good months hard work.

Pedantic Paperwork II: The tale of the elusive license

When it comes to getting a driving license in Japan, it’s all a matter of timing. The window that you need to get to in the giant mess of a bureaucratic testament to 1980’s flat pack architecture (part of Japan’s peculiar, let’s make buildings that last for precisely twenty eight years and nothing more, attitude to construction) is only open for an hour and half in the morning and after lunch.

Presumably the rest of the time is consumed with filing the mountain of unnecessary paperwork they produce, or perhaps cleaning and polishing their fine array of government issued stamps and stamps. No that isn’t a typo, the first variety are of the wooden handle, rubber base variety. The other are of the, we couldn’t possibly trust more than one person with real currency, lets convert all cash into government issued stamps that are of equal value only within the confines of these four hastily constructed walls, kind. Walls that they do not in fact leave as these currency stamps are issued by the state and returned to the state within mere minutes. Going hastily from the little window nudged into the far corner from where you purchase them, across the corridor to the slightly larger office in charge of producing the flimsy bit of card and minimal plastic which your mug will be digitally plastered onto.

And you thought the post office was a mess? O ye of little faith. There is more madness in Nippon than you have ever dreamed of in your society.

There is of course the endless stream of paper, the details of myriad national licenses held in an enormous folder that quite literally bursts at the seams. The amazing stamp collection, both wooden and paper, the endless people performing quite patently simple tasks, in triplicate and then passed back to the desk behind them to be inputted into a computer that in all likelihood is not connected to any grand database. It is that burgeoning bureaucratic machine, designed to perform every function in the longest fashion possible.

Back at the window for ‘foreign driving license conversion’ I was asked a seemingly never-ending list of inane questions. How much did your driving lessons in the UK cost? How long does it take to pass? What driving school did you use? What is the test course like? What the hell do you mean you drove on real roads? Are you mad?

After this ridiculous inquiry I was beginning to get rather…perhaps… well just a touch impatient. There was an oral exam to go and an eye test and frankly I was bored of waiting. But the gent behind the counter sprung a small surprise. That had been the oral exam.

Huh, I hear you say.

Apparently there has been a spree of (considering there were a sum total of three foreigners getting a license that day, a spree may have been an exaggeration on his part) foreigners forging British driving licenses in order to bypass the driving tests that individuals from other nations such as America have to go through. After this bit of storytelling was voiced my boss noted that she could indeed see how a piece of plastic as poorly constructed as the British license could easily be forged. Shoddy foreign craftsmanship.

One eye test later and I was handed my new, somewhat shiny, mostly cardboard Japanese driving license. Finally free of the red tape I looked at the piece of hastily constructed rubbish in my hands and thought to myself, why would anyone try and forge the British license, when forging the Japanese one would be far easier?

Harry Potter and the Matsukawa Matsuri

Japan in the summer is hot, it’s humid and frankly downright unpleasant at times. In addition, we’re currently experiencing the last vestiges of the rainy season or ‘tsuyu’, which means that I am never without an umbrella.The Japanese summer does have however, one major redeeming feature. It’s festival time.

What does this mean? Well the usually quiet streets of every village or town will be full to the brim with people of all ages. Little kids clad in kimonos strike a traditional tone somewhat tempered by the Pikachu mask while grown men sway and bounce as they carry large wooden floats down the street powered only by sheer force of will and a plentiful supply of sake.

Then there’s the street food. The takoyaki (octopus dumplings), the yakisoba (fried soba), barbecued ika (squid), barbecued everything on a stick, and most necessary in such weather, all manner of kakigori (flavoured ice) to lessen the suffering of my scolded tongue; the takoyaki was particularly hot. My friend believes that the takoyaki is in fact super heated to drive sales of the kakigori and beer.

Considering how quiet these little Japanese towns can be it is absolutely wonderful to see them packed to the brim. Local dance groups perform for the crowd, hanabi (fireworks, though the literal translation is fire flower) burst in the clear night sky, shimmering against the black night. All the while the booze flows quite freely. In fact, if the guys carrying the floats down the street aren’t very hammered indeed, well you’re simply in the wrong kind of town because the festival season is the time of year when the otherwise polite and restrained Japanese let their hair down.

Towards the end of the festivities a friend of mine, another English teacher, bumped into a former student of his. Standing on the side of the road and being quite the talkative bunch, particularly after a few beers, we ended up talking not only to his former student but to many a passerby. In particular the five of us gaijin English teachers there that night, met a very nice Malaysian family. Having revealed our various nationalities (Serbian, American, Canadian and English) the parents began trying to remember what English person I could possibly remind them of. With floppy brown hair, dark brown eyes and a fairly quintessential English accent, I’m used to being compared to pretty much anyone out of a Richard Curtis movie. However, I’d made a fatal mistake. I was wearing my glasses. I give a warning now to any Englishmen of the bespectacled variety that ventures onto foreign shores, there is only one man, nay boy, you will be compared to should you meet anybody under thirty or with children. You may think the individual in question, who you have no doubt guessed the identity of by now (mostly by dint of the title) is a wonderful chap, and in real life he may perhaps be just that, but in literary form he is a multi-million pound boy wizard who has never captured my cynical imagination.

So having raised giggles from all around with my resemblance to Harry sodding Potter, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then someone said, ‘cast a spell! You know, for the kids.’

Lets get something straight. This was in no way, for the kids, the kids were simply bemused by the random collection of foreigners. This, this was for the parents and my friends.

My cynicism however, only goes so far. Handed the inflatable toy sword of one of the kids I sheepishly proceeded to cast a spell above his head.

Ah well, if all I have to do to enjoy festival season in Japan is occasionally impersonate a fictional wizard I’ll do it.

I won’t be wearing my glasses to another festival mind you.

Mr. Monkey

To be truthful, kindergarten lessons or any lesson with anyone under fourteen years old can be quite a drain. Polite boredom from semi-comatose high school students isn’t so bad, they at least have the decency to make some vague attempt at looking interested, even as they offer muffled answers from behind the arm they’re attempting to convert into a pillow. In fairness though, this is quite a rarity as the high school kids I teach are a generally enthusiastic bunch once they settle in. But, really young kids, they are exhausting.

It’s these kids that demand to be entertained, to never be bored, to never sit still and to on occasion, use you as a portable climbing frame.

One six year old student of mine has a tendency, when my back is turned, to hop on the table and from there make a Tarzanesque leap onto my back while yelling in tribal fashion, “Monkey Desu/I’m a monkey!” Other times he simple latches onto one of my legs until I detach him along with the slippers I’m wearing, at which point he scurries under the table and the slippers fly out in my general direction. All the while giggling as if he were Gollum reunited with his precious.

Actually, that’s a pretty good way to characterize my kids in Japan, and most kids worldwide for that matter, as adorable little Gollums. Sweet one moment, angry and violent the next, all the while leaping and bounding around claiming anything not nailed down. Though that’s just the ones with an overabundance of energy. So nearly all of them.

Which would be fine, except it’s not always natural energy. A friend of mine, a fellow English teacher told me once how some of her elementary kids mentioned to her that they love coffee. As if they didn’t have enough energy to begin with. My god, I still remember the giddy demented joy of flat coke at junior school discos, the sugar rush and heady high followed by the inevitable sugar crash. I can’t imagine the chaos I may have caused had I discovered a love of coffee in my pre-teens. No climbing frame would have been safe, no garden fence left unscaled and no green house with windows left intact.

But while they may be exhausting, teaching kids is a real joy that I wouldn’t want to do without. The creativity and general madness they throw at every situation keeps me endlessly laughing. A few months ago I asked a student what animal he was drawing and he calmly declared, ‘dikangasaur.’ A dinosaur-kangaroo hybrid; the boy is clearly destined for greatness.

I remember when I first started teaching a class of eight year olds. The two girls in the class squealed at the sight of me and refused to sit within two seats of me. Two weeks later, my head bowed a little during a card game I caught one of them trying to steal a hair off the top of my head. A few weeks after, amazed by the hairiness of my forearms two of the kids simply started stroking those very arms while going, ‘ehhhhhhh!’ This week while playing a board game, one of them, with a puppet of a duck on one hand and a puppet lion on the other, decided that both creatures had a taste for human flesh and so attempted to devour my forearm when it wasn’t their turn to throw the dice.

Every now and then I teach a really big couple of kindergarten classes at a pre-school ten minutes away from my little classroom. Each time I do I feel like a Beatle, not Paul or John, but perhaps a Ringo, the kids do love Thomas the Tank Engine after all. I arrive at the school to tiny cries of, “Eigo no sensei/ English teacher!’ Then as I climb the stairs up to my first class I’m mobbed by tiny hands grabbing at my arms and legs looking for high fives or to steal a peek at today’s new flash cards. When we play hopscotch with the flash cards on the floor, each kid finishes their final leap with a double high five with me or with their kindergarten teacher. Initially this was one high five, then two, and now it seems to be as many as they feel they can get away with. Each kid frantically trying to get his or her fair share of high fives.

Occasionally there is a down side to this. Japanese kids are messy. I don’t mean dirty, food stained or whatever, that’s normal. They’re messy in the sense that it is seemingly rude to blow your nose in Japan. So inevitably there is always one child, with vacuum cleaner might, snorting some long dangling bit of snot back up their nose. Indeed so common is this in Japan that there is a single word to describe such children, ‘hanatarekozo’, translated as, ‘snot nosed kid.’ Which according to my dictionary is a word spelt with the Kanji (Chinese characters) for nasal discharge/tear, droop/suspend, little and Buddhist Priest/monk. It’s times like this where I understand the appeal of Kanji. This snotty issue wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the school once asking me to shake hands in the western fashion with every child. Some offered the wrong hand, some didn’t offer a hand, and a couple gave an almighty sniffling snorting, whipped their hand under their nose and slapped it into mine with a big grin on their faces. Quite the greeting.

Now, sometimes what you teach these kids they have little interest in. The weather, clothes, numbers. They simply aren’t that excited by it beyond the giddiness of shouting out new English. But new animals, these they love, and if  you follow it with an impression, well then the lesson will be a breeze. Oddly enough, a class of five year olds making a real attempt to sound like a monkey, as opposed to just acting like one, is fantastically easy to control and keep amused.

Sometimes we play, ‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf?’ But with an ever changing roll of Mr. Animals. Now, knowing the intricacies of English grammar is all well and good, but trust me when I say the ability to impersonate a hungry child-eating Mr. Monkey is far more important.

Three White Russians, a Buddhist Priest and a Gaijin

Japan is as littered with peculiar contrasts as any country, but having modernized so quickly and completely, having lurched into modernity at such a pace while simultaneously remaining quite distinct from the outside world, it often finds these two faces cheek to cheek. The traditional kneeling next to the contemporary is like any distinction, sometimes held up with pride and oft times a source of friction. Like two tectonic plates colliding, new masses will be formed and shock waves will ripple and as always people will rebuild on what’s left.

The Japanese living in a land where the earthquake is no stranger to their lives, have designed buildings that bend and flex with the violent forces beneath their foundations. The people I would suggest are built much the same. Marrying elements of their own culture with surprising ease to a variety of other cultural influences until it is barely distinguishable from the native. Often the only reason my particularly young students know something isn’t Japanese in origin is that the word appears in katakana, the written form of Japanese for loan words. Otherwise it’s simply part of their world and they’re none the wiser.

However, despite the global invasion, and the seemingly universal love of a cheeseburger I’ve yet to see a kid out here devour anything quite as quickly, or quite as gleefully for that matter, as a bowl of rice. It’s like watching a vacuum cleaner attached to a set of chopsticks. Sometimes globalization simply doesn’t make a dent.

The time I experienced this mix of cultures most clearly was last New Year’s Eve.  Nagano was covered in snow. The mountains with their white capped peaks were stunning to behold, while out in the countryside the snow drifts, pristine and white under a clear night sky shimmered in the moonlight. No electric lamplight to dull the stars as I sat far out in the countryside in a beautiful Buddhist temple run by one of my students.

I’d been looking for a way to spend New Years and very kindly two of my older students invited me to spend New Year at their temple. What I hadn’t expected, and nor had they, was that my lift to their temple would drop me off a whole twelve hours early.

So there we sat dictionaries in hand, both beginners in each other’s languages, drinking green tea and trying to stay warm under the kotatsu (essentially a heated coffee table with a blanket/duvet wedged under the table top and covering your legs – it’s amazing). For a while he showed me how some simple kanji (the Chinese characters used by the Japanese for part of their writing system) had developed over time. Then how two wholly separate ideas could combine to create new meanings and how these would then be refined down to their bare bones to create the modern form of the word as the technique for writing it became the standard in much the same way as Johnson’s dictionary locked English spelling into place.

Before long the conversation has drifted towards what I’d done for a living before I’d become an English teacher. So I listed my litany of crimes, library worker, dish washer, petrol station worker and finally bartender. In England this receives a barely perceptible nod, as pretty much everyone seems to have pulled a pint at some point in his or her university life. But in Japan, and with an ageing couple, a young man who once shook a steel container filled with booze and ice is apparently quite exciting.  However, the conversation moved on and soon my student and I were on a New Year’s Eve errand, running gift boxes temple to temple with my erstwhile profession forgotten… or so I thought.

On the way back to his temple my student suddenly veered off into a Megaten, a large chain of off licenses here in Japan, and I was asked to pick up the ingredients to produce a cocktail. Aiming for simplicity and not to bankrupt him with the cost of liquer I quickly grabbed two smallish bottles and headed to the till where of course he wouldn’t let me pay.

Once back at the temple I was guided towards the kotatsu in the room adjacent to the kitchen where my students were preparing the New Year’s Eve feast. I offered to help as often as possible but eventually took the hint that my help would be more of a hindrance. So instead I ended up watching Casablanca with Japanese subtitles.

Before all the local people began to arrive we sat down for an early meal and I duly made some Black and White Russians. A traditional feast next to western cocktails, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to say the least. Fortunately they thought the creations to be rather nice, but another consequence was on its way. Knowing the English, ‘do you like…?’ rather well, but being quite limited in other areas of communication they decided to make use of that phrase as often as possible with the addition of a different alcoholic beverage at the end each time. Sake, wine, gin, beer…

By the end of the evening I was outside by the fire in front of the temple, attempting to keep warm with the other visitors. There is a tradition in Buddhist temples at New Year that the bell should be rung precisely one hundred and eight times (representing the 108 sins as recognized in Buddhism) and so with my belly warmed by hot sake I rang the bell twice, the number of times I had been told was appropriate. Eventually as the night drew on and toes began to freeze someone gave me a nudge, ‘go ring the bell again would you, we’re getting cold.’

Tradition is pretty flexible it seems.

Brazen Oldies

I’m used to being stared at in Japan, but one hundred and fifteen senior citizens all staring at me at once is a new experience to be honest. That they were expecting a speech from me was all the stranger. Yet, there I was in front of a collection of silver haired, wrinkle faced, smiling and occasionally snoring faces about to have a one hour ramble on all things Japanese and British.

I should perhaps clarify before people begin to think I make a habit of strolling into old folks homes and regaling a room full of pensioners with tales from a long dead empire. I’d actually been hired to do this as part of the usual rent-a-gaijin service my employers run, ‘Need a pale faced young man from rainier shores to promote your local service? We have your gaijin.’ There’s no harm in it, usually they just want someone to write a few words in English on their service. I did just that for a local river rafting company; that I ended up wearing a traditional peasants hat and blue happi (essentially the top half of a heavy cotton kimono or yukata) and posing for a photo was sheer coincidence. This time however, I was stood at the front of a large meeting room on the third floor of the local government building and sharing my thoughts on weather, sport and food in Japan and Britain.

The way it worked was that I’d reel off a short sentence or two and then a very nice English chap who’s been out here for many a year would translate my peculiar ramblings into much clearer Japanese.

My nervousness in such events often translates in an infuriating way. I can speak perfectly clearly, but my hands will shake a fair bit. It’s certainly not as bad as it was when I was kid, a year or so of bartending and now teaching everyday means I’m pretty confident when it comes to holding the attention of a table full of people but it’d be fair to say that a hundred and fifteen people is outside my usual comfort zone.

I started to ease into it all pretty quickly, even managing to get a few laughs when I mentioned how I became a Hiroshima Carp fan because supporting a winning team just doesn’t feel like… well like supporting a team really. Supporting England and Huddersfield Town is hardly the quick path to glory after all.

Eventually we reached the question and answer portion of the event from which I hadn’t really expected too many surprises. This is after all a nation of infuriatingly polite people and as such not prone to asking difficult questions. Usually never straying beyond, ‘is this delicious?’ But I’d forgotten that I live in a country where the elderly rule and inappropriate questions come not from the mouths of cheeky teenagers but from brazen oldies.

Militarism. Check. Nuclear weapons. Check.

It’s quite fortunate that on these two topics I generally agree wholeheartedly with the Japanese otherwise I’d know what one hundred and fifteen disapproving old Japanese people sound like.

Disappointingly I was asked the difference between England and Britain, some Japanese being blissfully unaware of the existence of Scottish people beyond scotch and the Welsh beyond… well they don’t know Wales is there really.

Fortunately one man had some inkling of the construction of our Kingdom and asked me whether all the countries in the UK still hate each other. No of course not, I told him.  They all hate England.

Though when abroad, they just hate that no one seems to know that Scotland isn’t a prefecture of England.