Tag Archives: politeness

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…

Pachinko: The Cost of Solitude

They can be found everywhere in Japan. In major cities and in the sleepy countryside alike, the sound of high pitched ringing and pinging flows out of automatic doors as they open to let some poor bespectacled salary man back into the harsh light of day, far from the neon buzz and cacophony of electronic noises of his temporary home and refuge, the Pachinko parlour.

What is Pachinko you may ask? It’s a question I’ve asked my students many times and, “a sort of pinball,” is the only answer I’ve ever received as they remain strangely non-committal in their answers. A way to lose money while being assaulted by flashing lights and random video sequences to build up suspense would have been my guess, but such is their popularity in Japan I’m inclined to believe I may be missing part of their appeal.

According to the Japan Times the game evolved from an American Pinball machine originally exported to Japan to be sold as a children’s toy. Over time the humble pinball machine became an adult’s game and something of a gambling phenomenon.

How much of a phenomenon? Well, two minutes down the road from my apartment, on an otherwise non-descript yet quiet (for just how quiet, see the below picture) road leading in one direction to the highway and in the other to the quiet city centre, sits a fairly typical Pachinko parlour. It has as many parking spaces as the local supermarket and unlike the supermarket they seem to be in demand every moment of the day. They can be found in every city and in my travels I find them to be almost everywhere where one can find a space to build one; in a form of architecture that can only be described as Buck Rodgers style modernism.

Their names are usually snippets of English, something that hints at victory and competition, for example ‘Champion’. Anime or Manga style art often play a role in the signage lending an air of fiction to the places. I suppose it adds to the feeling of a different world that casinos often try to create in order to keep gamblers at their tables through the night by making sure the environment remains the same no matter the time of day. It also on a far more obvious level taps into the general adoration of all things Manga.

Yet, while I can see the Pachinko machine’s roots in pinball, as it looks essentially like a vertical pinball machine with added things to twist and push and generally confuse and distract its players with, it has evolved into something all the more confusing and inherently Japanese in its design. In fact if I had to describe it to someone my best attempt would be Akihabara in a box. A neon cacophony dedicated to the art of switching off from the hustle and bustle of life itself.

The game itself is appallingly simple. You rent little pachinko balls (think pinballs) for around four yen a ball, so a thousand yen note will get you about 250 balls. The aim is simply to win more balls which allows you more opportunities to get them to drop into the central gate that then activates the slot machine element of the game that allows you to win yet larger prizes. To get a considerably more detailed overview of how the game works, check out the Wikipedia Pachinko page.

However, while they may be on almost every other street in Japan they are not necessarily all doing quite so well. Nationally Pachinko is actually worth more than Japan’s domestic auto industry and an individual parlour can easily make $25 million dollars a year. Yet, despite these huge figures, on my regular drive to lessons I pass two empty, creaking and dilapidated Pachinko relics. Thanks to their distinctive design no one appears to have any interest in reusing the buildings themselves. A friend of mine has even noticed one such Pachinko palour is currently filled with the product of this years rice harvest. A gambling den converted for use into a grain silo of sorts.

The house, clearly, always wins, unless as in the case of the latterly mentioned derelicts, the house is too big for the area it resides in. But the size and number of them in my otherwise sleepy little city suggests that these colossal gambling halls, are on the one hand incredibly popular and the other, very profitable indeed.

When my friend played the other day, in an attempt to fathom what the hell the appeal of these machines was he dropped a hundred yen in a low risk, low win machine that lasted as a game for all of fifty seconds. However, people will spend hours upon hours in these places and rarely beat the house and if they do only by a measly margin.

How much, is a moment of solitude costing the average Japanese person who indulges in Pachinko? According to The Japan Times in a 2007 article, “a YRI survey of about 2,000 respondents conducted between September and October in 2006 found that the average amount spent on pachinko was a whopping ¥28,124 per visit.” In pounds, for my English readers, that comes to a whopping, £214.67.

As David Plotz notes in his article on Pachinko in Japan (and it only exists in Japan) the all-pervasive, easy access and economically draining variety of gambling that it takes the form of (in contrast to the economic and tourist draw of places like Las Vegas) is seen by academics to be the worst kind of gambling in a society from an economic standpoint. What does that mean exactly? Well you’d happily fly to Las Vegas, see a show, eat some fine foods, drink some colourful cocktails and generally have a good time. Possibly even, without gambling a single penny, but no one is flying to Japan for Pachinko.Certainly not for the parlours in my city.

The strange thing is, technically, gambling is illegal in Japan. Yet, Pachinko operates in a grey area where it is generally ignored and loosely regulated. There is no moral distain for Pachinko as far as I can tell in my day-to-day life and so as noted in the fantastic piece on Pachinko on the New York Japan Society website by David Plotz, Pachinko is treated like many other vices in Japan, as a purely practical issue.

The nervous shuffling from my students when I from time to time ask them certain questions is usually pretty indicative of unspoken elements of Japanese society that they know to be logically harmful, perhaps even shameful but to which they turn a blind eye. That personally the appeal of Pachinko remains elusive to me is obvious, I come from a generation and a culture with other means of escape from the daily grind; indeed not being Japanese I don’t believe the daily need be a grind at all. Yet, that shuffling persists because while I cannot discern the comfort one receives from the abandonment of self in somewhere as noisy and crowded as a Pachinko Parlour (if only for that brief few hours a day to maintain one’s own sanity and separateness from the solid whole that is Japanese society), it is simple to discern something that the Japanese know too well already. That a practical response to something damaging, is nothing to be ashamed of, but if that solution includes the desire to pretend it doesn’t exist at all, to never discuss it in real detail then it will be left to fester all the worse.

When Japanese Kawaii! Culture goes a little too far…

Walking back from taking the pictures for this article, I passed by a stonemason’s that deals primarily in gravestones.  These kinds of places are scattered quite openly around Japan and are fairly easy to come by, indeed I pass by one with an enormous nine-foot tall figure outside in lieu of an actual sign when I drive to certain lessons.  I’ve always been rather impressed by the craftsmanship and obvious skill involved. In a country so full of flashes of neon it’s nice to come across something of the traditional and understated from time to time. Something respectful of its heritage, not gaudy when it should be gracious.

But then I saw something less funereal, more furry… he does look rather dapper though.

Accidental Adoption: Manners and Stray Families

Jetlagged, weary and still thinking a bit in Japanese having only been on English soil for all of an hour, I lumbered onto the tube, bags in hand and wishing I didn’t have to take the Circle line of all things. Immediately two enormous suitcases caught my eye. They had JAPAN in big letters plastered across them and sure enough on the seats surrounding these great hulking bags sat a rather sleepy, but mostly nervous looking Japanese family.

Half asleep myself, I spotted the only spare seat in the carriage that just happened to be next to this family. I wandered over, dodging other passengers, attempting not to jostle or knock anyone with my rucksack, and without thinking asked the nice family, “Is it ok?” and pointed at the seat.

Fine right? Nothing odd there, except, well… I asked in Japanese. In London. On the tube, where nobody speaks to strangers and certainly not in that stranger’s native tongue.

I got a nervous, “hai/yes” in response and so I slumped down into the seat. Of course that wouldn’t be the end of it though. I could see the family nervously glancing at one another, reflected in the opposite window, wondering whether to engage this utter stranger in conversation. This went on for a minute or two before I felt bad for getting them all in a kerfuffle and turned and asked them where they were going.

Pari, as the Japanese call Paris, was the destination. Followed by a variety of confused questions as to why an Englishman was speaking Japanese (however poorly).

After helping them successfully get off at the right stop, which conveniently also happened to be my stop, they quickly gathered the courage to ask me what they’d clearly wanted to ask me all along, “could I do them a favour?”

Here was their problem; they were staying with their daughter’s friend’s family in Paris. Their daughter’s friend speaks Japanese. However, they’d been unable to get in contact with her as they only had the home phone number. The family of said girl would in all likelihood pick up the home phone, the family that only spoke French and English.

Bugger.

I was immediately handed a mobile phone, already dialing. It rang and rang and I found myself thinking, “Why don’t you ever just not talk to strangers? Bloody plonker.” It rang a little more…

And nobody picked up.

Thank god.

We said our goodbyes, they thanked me for my efforts and waved me on my way as I went with a good friend to get my first taste of English ale for eleven months. Over that beer I began to wonder, how the hell had I managed to accidentally adopt a whole Japanese family?

Japanese politeness that’s how.

I should know better.

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.