Tag Archives: Education

Turning Japanese

What you aren’t prepared for, after the initial wave of culture shock has subsided and you have begun to settle down in Japan, is how much you become like the people who stare at you in this most homogenous of lands.

The kanji (Chinese characters) that make up all the signs seem less intimidating, even if they make no more sense. The strange game boy like pop music that erupts at midday from speakers littered across town no longer makes you feel like you’re about to run head first into a Pokémon and you’ve even stopped converting yen into pounds. But what you’re not prepared for is that you will begin to stare too. Not at the odd intricacies of life in the far east of which there are plenty, not at the random items of food you cannot even begin to identify, but at something quite similar to yourself; the other foreigners.

First you become more immune to the occasional whispering of (or downright yelling), ‘Gaijin da!’ Which can be translated roughly as, ‘Holy crap! Look, look, it’s a foreigner!’ However, the far, far more regular occurrence is staring. People in passing cars, folks in the supermarket, everyone in whatever bar you’ve just walked into will stare at you, or perform what they consider to be a surreptitious glance.

Then it happens to you. Walking along the street, minding your own business until another foreigner rolls into view and you find yourself doing pretty much everything other than shouting, ‘Gaijin da!’ It’s awkward for both of you really, because you’re both attempting the same surreptitious glance.

Still just occasionally this sense of shock that one’s own pale skin can induce in others has its perks. I had just finished teaching a lesson when the mother of one my students took her other kid, a one-year-old boy, of off her little backpack contraption as he was crying his eyes out. Once she had laid him down for only an instant on the desk to fix his little jumpsuit thing he stopped crying immediately. His eyes were wide, quite bewildered and fixed firmly upon me. I smiled and looked back, ‘Gaijin da.’ I said.


Forza Júbilo!

With rapidly burning arms in the hot Shizuoka sunshine I was beginning to look like the archetypal British tourist abroad. Towel draped over my neck and beginning to turn a medium rare pink on every inch of my body exposed to the midday sun. Just to complete the stereotype of a hooligan Brit abroad I was shouting at the football. Now before you think I’d somehow discovered a Red Lion pub in Eastern Japan and draped myself in a white napkin knotted at the corners I should point out that I was in fact attending my first Japanese football match (Júbilo Iwata v. Kobe Vissel), the towel was the Japanese equivalent of a football scarf and… ok the sunburn I can’t defend.

Last weekend, with an adult student of mine acting as my guide I ventured out to my first, though hopefully not my last, Japanese football match. An eight hour round trip to Iwata in Shizuoka prefecture the cost of getting the fix of live football that has been sadly absent from my life since I left Britain’s shores last year.

Arriving at the tiny stadium on a quiet and beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon around half an hour before kick off I was surprised to see so little a crowd edging their way to the stadium. The reason it turned out was that the place was already more than three quarters full. Some six thousand or so fans already lining the terraces, snacking on yakitori, kebabs, fries, sandwiches, iced drinks, cold beers and as usual in Japan a few edible items of indeterminate origin. Every single fan sporting a scarf/towel hybrid in Júbilo Iwata sky blue or a replica shirt from any number of seasons and sponsors past. The safe standing area in what most British fans would know as the cow shed end of the stadium was already packed (but in an orderly Japanese fashion) and bouncing to a drum beat from a Brazilian fan, cheered on by some huge flags that looked to have poles long enough to jab the goalkeeper with. Of course such mischief would never occur to these fans. Unfortunately. I may or may not have been envisioning a giant foam finger on the end of a flagpole…

As I noted in the Hiroshima Carp post a while back, Japanese fans are crazy and I love them for it. Their enthusiasm is simply boundless. The players arrived for their warm up around twenty minutes before kick off and the fans immediately burst into a full throated round of songs and chants declaring their love for every player and all things Júbilo Iwata.

This is also probably one of the few places in Japan beyond Tokyo and the port cities where internationalism is clearly visible. To begin with Júbilo is Portuguese for, ‘exultation’ while the score board declared, ‘Forza Júbilo !’ A frankly wonderful declaration of support for a Japanese team using a mix of Italian and Portuguese that I guess means, ‘forward exultation’. Frankly I’d march to that, nevermind bounce on the terraces.

Inevitably though, when the goals did come it wasn’t from a Japanese boot. This is a country seemingly socially incapable of producing a striker. The team ethic is so well honed and drilled in children from such a young age that the creativity, individuality and downright selfishness required to be a decent striker doesn’t exist. So like any other nation in the world, they brought in some Brazilians to do it for them. The goals in this game came from the boot of one Gilsinho, his first a sublime effort after cutting in from the left wing and his second a neat finish after some chaos in the box.

You can find the match report here.

As the final whistle blew I waited for the anticipated rush from the stadium that so characterizes the end of English football matches, that mad dash to the car in an often ill-fated attempt to avoid the traffic. Yet it never materialized. No mad rush, but instead half the stadium gathering as close to the pitch as they could get as the players took a long stroll around the pitch to thank the fans. A more appreciative group of fans would be really hard to find.

So, a hint of carnival, kids running around and my twenty five year old student screaming like a demented toddler who thinks he’s just spotted Santa coming down the chimney in an attempt to catch the attention of his favourite player.

It’s no cold day at the Galpharm but it’ll do nicely for now.

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.’

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.

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


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