Tag Archives: Teaching

Fluently Worrying

In my daily life I think a lot about language. How to use the Japanese language correctly, my choice of vocabulary and grammar when addressing my students in English, my use of tone and expression, the physicality of my language, it all gets thrown together in a jumbled mess of simplified English and broken Japanese.

The thing is, this mess needs to convey an idea that doesn’t come naturally to most people and certainly not to Japanese teenagers.

The idea that in order to learn a language you have to not only be unafraid of making mistakes but care enough to want to fix those very same mistakes.

It’s a difficult balance.

One thing I don’t do is sugarcoat it. I don’t pretend that what they’re studying is easy, that it has a sense of logic that they ought to be able to grasp easily. Language doesn’t work like that and a language born of so many people and cultures as English is a hodgepodge.

More than that it’s a sadistic, cacophonous, beautiful, shambles of a language.

And I love it for it.

However, for teenagers this cluttered lingua franca is encountered in an environment where the wrong answer is to be feared because a wrong answer symbolizes more than, ‘I don’t know right now,’ it often feels like it means, like it displays to the entire room, ‘I will never know the right answer.’

I can remember that feeling well from High School French or Spanish classes where we were dragged through a textbook kicking and screaming, ticking boxes and attempting to build on linguistic steps when the foundations hadn’t fully dried yet.

If you take a quick ride on any train in Japan it would be abundantly clear that this kind of feeling continues to linger on long into adult life here. Dotted around every carriage are advertisements for an endless variety of English conversation schools promising to improve an obviously faltering and feeble grasp of the English language.

If I could change one thing about Japan it’d be these blasted adverts. I’d replace them with ones that say,

English is hard. It is not impossible. It takes at least three thousand hours of regular study for a native speaker of a non-European language to reach an advanced level. Please stop worrying and enjoy your day.

Better yet, what’s the Japanese for Keep Calm and Carry On?

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Ode to a Kotatsu: How to love the Japanese Winter

Nagano is cold in winter. Ok that’s not strictly true. Nagano is in fact, absolutely, bloody, freezing in winter, which perhaps explains the presence of a Winter Olympics here. It’s not Hokkaido but frankly it’s still pretty damn cold. Why is this an issue? Well, I live in Japan, possibly the only economically advanced nation in the world utterly bereft of insulation, double-glazing or central heating of any kind. So why do I not care about this? Because the Japanese have over the centuries come up with many interesting approaches to keeping warm on those crisp, cold winter nights.

The masterpiece of all this winter combating wonder is of course the kotatsu. In the grand scheme of Japanese heating gadgetry this is the last step. So I’ll come back to it in a moment.

First up, because the Japanese are usually very practical people indeed is warm clothes. Ok, I understand you were hoping for something more technologically advanced but as my erstwhile Swedish housemate once told me, he wasn’t a wuss for wearing thermal underwear during the British winter, rather he had a healthy respect for the cold. A respect, which we in England, he noted, lack to a quite insane degree. Any brief thought I may have had to defend my land was quickly dismissed by the unwelcome mental image of the average overweight Newcastle Utd fan on a Saturday afternoon in January; shirtless, rolls of fat cascading down over ageing denim and endless tattoos declaring an undying allegiance to the Geordie army whose main rival one might surmise to be the cold itself.

But back to Japan, with its citizens quite adamant about its clear and distinct four seasons (to the extent that my students always look rather smug when I explain the English seasons as one week spring, two weeks summer, a damp squib autumn and a never ending wet and windy winter), there is a quite dramatic shift in seasonal clothing as summer clothes get packed away and the autumn and winter wear is brought back from that nook in the bottom of the cupboard.

This dramatic a shift is to be expected really when all Japanese folk struggle with the fact that temperatures of twenty-two degrees and higher elicit a yelp of, “atsui/hot!” While twenty degrees and below elicits an immediate whimper from behind a scarf of, “samui/cold!” The magic temperature they all seek being a perfect twenty-one degrees, at which point they all get remarkably quiet, perhaps reveling in this moment of pure natural bliss while I interrupt their reverie by nervously muttering, “atatakai/warm? No…just me? OK… ”

Next comes all manner of electric blankets and under carpet/bed sheet heaters.  Each designed to keep you warm wherever you choose to plant yourself for the duration of the day because frankly, you’re not going anywhere. This is coupled with great big space heaters, occasionally with a hot plate on top for keeping a kettle full of water always ready for the gallons of green tea you are likely to consume in the course of trying to warm your poor frozen extremities.

But while all these things are necessary for one to get a cozy night’s sleep, or not to freeze your big toe off upon initial contact with the floor in the morning, they all pale in comparison to the mighty kotatsu.

The kotatsu is truly wonderful thing in my mind. The first thing I bought in Japan that turned my one room studio apartment, bereft of most furniture beyond the absolute bare necessities on my arrival, into something resembling a real home. Albeit, a perennially messy and cluttered one.

A kotatsu is essentially a blanket or duvet placed atop a low level table frame with the table top itself placed on top, thus sandwiching the blanket/duvet between the table frame and tabletop. In addition to this modern kotatsus have an electric heater installed on the underside of the table frame to heat the space under the table. To put it in a more western context, remember on cold winter mornings how you would clamber out of bed and drag the whole bed cover with you, wrapped around you and dragging behind as you went downstairs to watch Saturday morning kids television, before cable and satellite television killed off the children’s variety show that is. Now add a table so that you never, ever need move from your cosy spot in front of the TV, and that’s a kotatsu.

It’s also a way to be very lazy indeed. Without noticing your kettle will strangely migrate in the night to find a new home atop the kotatsu, soon your legs will rebel at the thought of ever leaving their cozy new home and bed will become a distant memory as you begin to nap beneath your new abode, content in the knowledge that when you awake the kettle is already in reach.

This winter is going to be very lazy indeed.

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.