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Shifting Gears

In the course of my working life, particularly when teaching children, the issue of bilingualism crops up fairly often. There are more than enough parents out there who despite their own language difficulties are dead set on producing bilingual offspring. It may be more common in cosmopolitan cities like New York, but there are plenty of people here in small-ish town Japan who see bilingualism as something of a holy grail, something to be pursued but largely unobtainable.

Now, if you happen to be a multi-lingual set of parents with two native tongues between you and have the opportunity to immerse your children in two languages then good for you, you honestly should be aiming for that goal. Culturally it’s an obvious boon and from what regular pieces in newspapers suggest it may indeed have long-term health benefits.

More importantly you can go about that education in a positive and enjoyable way because it’s more than an extra tool, another line on the resume and all that for your child; it’s access. Access to another culture, another way of thinking and the chance to widen your child’s horizons so that whatever they may choose to be in the future, the world you came from is a possibility for them.

For those of us born with just the one native tongue at hand it’s usually a rather more expensive matter. Particularly so here in Japan; parents spend an absolute fortune over a child’s lifetime putting them through endless cram schools and English conversation schools with disturbingly little to show for their efforts much of the time.

However, I don’t want to get bogged down in where the industry lets people down and where students let themselves down. Been there already. I’d rather focus on the most popular question.

“How?”

How do you do it. That thing. Switching between languages like flicking channels on a TV screen. What is the reality of being bilingual (even in my rather limited fashion)?

Speaking to Japanese people, in particular English teachers, who speak a fluent or close enough level of English I generally get an answer that is akin to my own feelings. We shift gears.

In a land of automatic cars the metaphor doesn’t work quite as well as you’d hope but I can’t think of anything else that really comes close to encapsulating the nature and process of becoming bilingual quite like it.

When you first start to drive a manual you’re pretty much praying you’re in the right gear, the gear box isn’t making any unwanted noises, no screeching, grinding and churning of teeth. You inevitably stall the engine, curse yourself and angrily, and rather uncouthly shift the gear into the correct position with an unceremonious ‘geeeerunnk.’

Slowly you begin to get the feeling that this driving lark isn’t so tough after all. The gears change more smoothly, you no longer crawl up a too steep hill, race briefly and then sharply break before hitting a tree. Eventually you move on to an automatic car. On those simple long straight roads and run of the mill intersections where marks on the road, flashing lights and a line of other cars can direct you within the herd you suddenly find some pleasure in the activity (unless you’re in a traffic jam). Then, just as you relax a boy racer screeches past, all high-speed maneuvers, fast turns and necessary pinpoint accuracy in the manual shift.

You look on and smile, if only I could manage that… safely.

Well… maybe.

The truth is slightly less fun to write. I grew up and learned (very slowly) to drive in Yorkshire. The whole county, unlike Japan, is an endless stream of winding roads, endless roundabouts and utterly random inclines and cambers. I’m sure a decent automatic car can handle it but most people learn to drive manual, simply because people generally respond faster than automatic gearboxes to the lay of the land.

I can’t do that yet. I can’t play with language. I can’t see an odd turn in the road coming a mile off, I can’t adjust naturally to sharp bends in the conversation and an unusual camber might send my car rolling off the road and down the mountainside.

With proper guidance I can choose the right phrase but in the absence of signposts and road markings I lose my way. It’s certain I’ll never go off road in Japanese, but if I’m honest I’ll happily settle for automatic (cruise control too if it’s available); until Google invents the self-driving language at least.

Japan earthquake: An Appeal

It is beyond comprehension. As often as one reaches for the news, for the specifics, the scientific and concrete it simply dissipates at the sight of footage of destruction beyond mortal means.

No words can do justice to the events that occurred here, not immediately. Nor right now, it’s still too close. I wasn’t in the heart of it, I was safe, my building swayed but it did not shudder.

The only real first hand experience I had of it was what many people felt; fear for a friend’s life. However, the people I know who were close to this disaster and continue to remain at the heart of it are safe.

I know this thanks to a global media that has both helped people survive this disaster and also created a perhaps greater impact still. It has multiplied the reach of this tragedy.

For the next weeks and months Japan will dominate every airwave the world over. The terror of tsunami and devastation will be repeated in such a way that this tragedy will long remain in the memory.

This can I hope do more than stun a world for however long the media focus remains on Japan.

Please let it compel you to help in the only way one really can. Give money to those that can help on the ground. Give blood if possible and then when the media cycle ends; remember the people.

A large part of Japan is still standing for two reasons; it planned for this and it was far enough away. The people that were at the heart of this will need more than that. They will need the generosity and kindness of the world. They will need the best we have to offer.

Please give it.

You can donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross here.

For a more sizable list of charities you can donate to see 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.

Karaoke Fever aka Turning Japanese part II

Karaoke is a phenomenally popular pastime in Japan. Really, it’s not hard to understand why.  Just think about that most famous of world intersections at Shibuya, the mass of bodies that makes London seem quiet and bucolic in comparison is in a way Japan personified… albeit many times over.

So how does Karaoke fit into this?

There is the simple fact that this is a  cheap private space. In a country with an average population density of about 873 people per square mile, where three generations of a family will live together with paper thin walls between them and not bat an eyelid, a space you can rent relatively cheaply, drink cheap beer and snack to your hearts content with your mates long into the night when other Izakayas have shut up shop is a valuable commodity

Karaoke in Japan can be as private or as social as you want it to be. This is because big Karaoke places have rooms, or boxes as they are sometimes known, where one can sing alone to your hearts content or in the company of friends. Thus allowing both a rare opportunity for privacy or the ability to limit your potential humiliation to a handful of friends or sufficiently drunk co-workers.

Also, it’s liberating. While every other aspect of life in Japan may require a level of conformity and groupthink that some of us in the west might baulk at, Karaoke is about letting go of these constraints. You can be salary man by day and J-Rock star by night if that’s what you want to be.

It is a sense a way to recapture your youth in a big way. We all like to think that we’d sing something current, up to date and unassailably cool. But the truth is, that when the beers are stacking up something of your true and once youthful self emerges and unlike in High School, it isn’t shy. My litany of crimes to music within the confines of a karaoke box are now many, including my own attempt at doing Sad Kermit’s version of the Nine Inch Nails classic Hurt as covered by Johnny Cash, various 1980’s rap numbers and the odd *cough* …Springsteen classic… though strangely I regret them not.

Now I’ve been so often I’m beginning to develop minor pet peeves. Mainly that the aging Karaoke videos for any english language songs are a montage of 1980’s Europe, so when midway through singing any song you are likely to be confronted by the horror of a permed woman attempting to solve the same crossword over and over and over again, amid a sea of London Buses, just before a flood of images rotating around the leaning tower of Piza, before finally falling to despair and plummeting into a belly laugh at the sight of San Francisco tram cars.

It wasn’t long ago that the thought of Karaoke made me chuckle and wince in equal measure, but slowly bit by bit, inch by inch its grown on me. Like some airborne virus it’s caught me off guard. Passed unnoticed into my bloodstream and set up shop and worst of all it’s a fan of The Vapors.

Manga, Manga everywhere but not a jot of Cricket

My first experience of manga in Japan was not the best of introductions. I used to teach three boys, aged about eleven or twelve, at that annoying age where suddenly everything they liked two weeks ago is no longer cool. But one thing spans the gap from childhood to teen hood to adulthood like no other in Japan and every week, before their lesson started they would go looking for it.

Looking for it, just so you know, is my polite way of describing a deafening cacophony of tweenage screams and yelps that oscillated wildly between glass shattering and the noise an old man makes when getting out of an overly plumped sofa. Punches would be thrown, they’d scratch like a cat fighting for a fishbone and all this would be before they’d even collapsed through my office door. Every bit of chaotic energy they possessed was directed in a desperate attempt to be the first to one particular drawer at the base of the office bookshelf. For you see, that’s where they kept their treasure, their manga.

And when all the fighting was done, all the scraping, scratching, yelping, poking, picking and pinching, they’d lay on the office floor, all in a row with feet bobbing in the air reading the damn thing together. Turning pages at a frantic pace and utterly silent, a peculiar calm would descend over them, almost as if someone had just slipped them a sly sedative (note: I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted to do this, but frankly I find making language games very active e.g. endless racing for flashcards, has a similar effect without the high costs and danger of prison time associated with drugging your students).

Soon after though I saw the side of manga and Japanese Anime that often draws raised eyebrows in the rest of the world. Having taken the magazine off the boys as they tried to read it during the lesson I had quick flick through the enormous tome and stumbled across a picture of a young school girl, with Barbie like impossible curves, half bursting out of her uniform and staring down in shock at her now quite see through underwear having somehow spilled a large bowl of spaghetti on herself.

Creepy…

However, to take Japanese comic book culture on such a small sample would be to ignore an enormous amount of history and tradition in an art from so popular, that to dismiss it based on this small sample would be foolish… or baka gaijin/stupid foreigner.

So the last time I was down in Kyoto I took a trip to the Kyoto Manga Museum.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Granted it was as quiet as most museums as the people within focused with great care on their respective subjects. Yet, this was no ordinary museum. Rather it blended the best elements of a library, a museum and a truly public space. One that was as much for tourists as it was for locals, children and adults or pretty much anyone with a passion for Japan’s favourite art form.

And it is considered a serious art form now because as of 2002 it has been included in the MEXT Junior High School Curriculum. Though I can’t imagine Spider-Man making an appearance in the high school curriculum in the US generally, or Dennis the Menace in England really. ‘

The Kyoto Manga Museum was formerly Tatsuike Primary School and much of the feel of a school still pervades the place. Granted the Astroturf out front problem helps to a large extent, but the museum’s long creaking corridors, lined completely with an astonishing amount of manga gives the place a peculiarly appropriate feel, as if a konbini magazine rack (Japanese convenience store) fell into an old school house. It’s an odd mix, yet seems somehow to me to be matched perfectly. It captures both the childlike quality of comics themselves, in that they offer an escape into an imaginary world populated by creatures from our school day imaginations and just occasionally our more… shall we say wayward, teenage imaginations. It also places the comics in the locale where the frenzy my very own students illustrated was in all likelihood fostered.

Now while the museum was a truly impressive place, having a long list of special lectures on its calendar, some beautiful displays and a good introduction to manga for novices like me, what amazed me most was how well it functioned as a library.

I should probably note at this time that I once worked in a library, so I’ve seen it at its best when it acted as community hub offering homework help clubs to kids and great resources for the local community to add to their CV while continuing to fulfill its basic remit with ease. However, I have never, ever seen a library like the Kyoto Manga Museum. Every bench was full and not just with kids, but an almost perfect cross section of Japanese society. The reason for this is that the Museum offers a year long membership, so you can wander in almost any day of the week, find (if you feel so inclined) the best manga from 1972 and drop yourself onto a bench for as long as you wish. As public private partnerships go, the museum is an outstanding example of how it should be done. In as much the way as British rail service and any construction undertaken by Jarvis in the UK is a prime example of how not to do it.

Now when I say perfect cross section, I really do mean it. Manga covers pretty much every part of society. In their pursuit of profit manga magazines have tried to cater for all ages and both sexes. Although, in the end they discovered that manga aimed at kids was being read by adults, ones aimed at women are read by men, while pretty much every combination imaginable is read by someone completely unexpected as well as their aimed for demographic.

One variety of manga, I have however found deeply disappointing.

Sporting manga is huge and supposedly encapsulates the Japanese spirit in a way that samurai and warrior tales used to before the end of World War II. Every moment of any sport depicted is a heroic struggle; emotion pitched at either end of the spectrum, highlighting just how much sport is more than any mere game. Thanks to its popularity almost every sport has received such a treatment; baseball, volleyball, football (soccer for those who don’t know better), rugby and any other sport you can think of.

Except cricket.

The Naked Festival and Premature…ahem, Exploding.

Every now and then in my sleepy little town the quiet reverie and still countryside air is pierced with an almighty thump, like a cannon ball being launched headlong into the mountainside. It can happen day or night; I’ll be in my apartment, walking to the shops, in the office, in my classroom and from nowhere will come a sound like thunder, without a drop of rain in sight, without even a hint of that audible crackle in the air that precedes a colossal downpour.

Why?

Because there is nothing natural about this deafening rumble that echoes off the mountain chains, it comes instead from a local addiction. A pastime and hobby the local folk hold close to heir hearts. Well not too close…because their hobby is explosive. Their addiction is to the fire flower, the rather beautiful literal translation of hanabi or in English fireworks.

No you didn’t misread the first paragraph nor did I mistype. They do have an odd tendency here for performing test runs on their fireworks during the day even. One such test scaring the crap out of me when set off in a back garden I was just twenty-fifty feet from whilst enjoying a lazy stroll to the local bakers one sunny afternoon. A plume of barely visible smoke and a faint ringing in my ears being the tell tale signs of a local individual indulging somewhat too early in the day in their chosen explosive fun.

For me, fireworks conjure up thoughts of crisp, cold nights in a park somewhere, neck craned up at the clear night sky, ears frozen and mug of plastic tea in hand. An effigy of Guy Fawkes should preferably be burning on a bonfire nearby and the smell of fried onions and cheap burgers ought to fill the air.

However, in Nagano, it’s a little different. Fireworks are generally part of the summer festival season and so a cold beer on a warm summer night is the more likely accompaniment to a quite epic display of explosive beauty.

Towards the end of this season I was lucky enough to be invited along to my student’s local area festival, a short thirty minute drive from my place, to take in what is known as the naked festival due to a single representative of each village wearing virtually nothing but a piece of cloth to cover a hint of his modesty while holding above his head a rather heavy 25kg weight.

This chap was soon followed by men of all ages, in groups of two or four, holding onto a large barrel or piece of wood launching all their effort into pushing the guy holding onto the other end of said block as far backwards as possible. In the course of this traditional outburst of locally cultivated, shrine located violence a little old lady or two were knocked over, some grown men picked up some scraped knees and a collection of elderly bespectacled salary men got very drunk indeed behind the event’s announcer, leading to some fairly amusing drunken background noise.

Yet, as amusing as watching grown men fling themselves about with no apparent thought for their safety can be, it wasn’t what had brought out the majority of the crowd that night. No, that would be the fireworks. Which would be a simple enough incentive one might think, but there was an added twist. Each of the six, yes six, individual displays had been bought and paid for by different neighbouring villages as something of a friendly competition to outdo one another.

Each village began their display with some firework writing that would reveal the name of their villages in Kanji. After that they did as they pleased… and it kind of showed.

One very cool feature of Japanese fireworks displays is the kind of mousetrap-esque way they set off fireworks. One firework will run along a path, ignite the next and so on. One such firework launches vertically up a pole on its own steam and then explodes dramatically upon reaching the top of said pole, a safe distance from the crowd. That night, four of these fireworks exploded prematurely at around head height. Safe we all were, but rather deafened for a moment each time. More and more I began to see how precarious these celebrations could be and perhaps why so many people in Nagano are volunteer firefighters.

The finale at these events always looks amazing and this little festival was no different, one of the dramatic yet dangerous poles was lit once more and this time went off without a hitch. The danger entirely understood and quite gleefully ignored as men danced, waved flags and generally displayed just how tough or insane they are beneath fiery rain.

It did look incredible though.