Random notes and a small grammar lesson

Since getting a wifi connection the quality of my life has improved immeasurably. I can now receive emails, write this blog at my leisure, watch Netflix, download books on Kindle, music on ITunes (the new Arcade Fire – Reflector) and watch Ray Donovan, Dexter, The Newsroom, Treme, Portlandia and Sons of Anarchy (a guilty pleasure) at my leisure. With Andrew’s help I had a HDMI cable delivered to my door from Amazon Japan (no delivery charge) for less than $10.00, enabling me to connect my laptop to my 32″ flat-screen TV. Life is pretty good and, touch wood, it continues to get easier.

That became apparent to me on Friday when I went to my “secondary” school, Minami. It is more rural than Daiichi, my “home” school and, because I only work there on Fridays, I’ve never really had the opportunity to establish much of a relationship with either the students or the teachers. Although there were no classes that day due to a typhoon alert, teachers were expected to show up and spend the day working in the office. Nonetheless, with no students in the building, the atmosphere was fairly casual. The principal, or Kochi (who speaks English well and has visited Sidney), invited me into his office and we had a very easygoing and enjoyable conversation about Sidney and how I was adjusting to Japanese society. Afterwards, because no lunch was served at the school due to the cancellation of classes, the teachers invited me to join them for lunch at a Chinese restaurant about a half mile from the school. It was a really great afternoon and one of the English teachers kindly gave me a lengthy ride home through the driving typhoon rain. Without a word being directly spoken about the subject, my concerns about classroom participation at Minami were completely allayed. I know it will be much easier for me there in the future. That’s Japan. There seems to me to be this astonishing capacity to intuit people’s concerns and respond to them, often in an oblique but effective way. Even before arriving in Japan it did seem to me that Naomi had an almost prescient ability to anticipate my concerns.

In marking the English homework of Japanese students, one of the most common errors is the misplacement or lack of the commonly found English articles a, an, and the. Japanese does not have articles; understandably then, it’s difficult for a student to appreciate the difference between “I have dog” and “I have dog”. Another difference between the two languages is that Japanese has two tenses, present and past. There is no future tense; it is implied from the context of the conversation. The present tense is used for future and habitual action. In some ways Japanese is quite simple: in other ways (Kanji), it is  very complex. A bit like the country itself.


Daimo (Samurai) Festival

The Daimo Festival commemorating  the annual walk of the Samurai that paid tribute to the Shogun in Edo, is held every October 15th in Niimi. As it most often falls on a weekday, I was fortunate to get a half day off school to attend. We (Naomi, Alex-ALT and myself) arrived a little early and were escorted to a sheltered area where we either knelt or sat cross-legged on cushions to await the parade. Traditionally, anyone who attempted to rise above ground level during the procession was apparently decapitated on the spot. Small mounds of sand in the shape of a mountain and capped with salt still dot the parade route to better facilitate the cleaning up of spilled blood afterwards. Tactfully I suppose, our host neglected to mention the significance of the sand but Alex, who is pretty well-versed in Japanese culture mentioned it to me.  It seemed as  good an explanation as any other for the sand. Although I didn’t see anyone beheaded on Tuesday (kidding of course), it is still considered good form to remain seated as the procession passes. Hence the low angle of most of the photos I took. I was pleased that my friends Tsukasa and Masa (seen in the photo in front of the shrine) emailed me a couple of photos for the blog!

Alex got the half day off work because some of his students were in the parade. He teaches elementary school so many of his students are quite young. As they passed us it seemed they were quite surprised to see Alex and spontaneously broke ranks with the procession to come over and give Alex a high-five. It was a pretty cool moment that I’m sure Alex appreciated. Along the route the “samurai”,  bearing the shrines that are quite heavy, periodically shake and tip them violently in an attempt to awaken the gods within. It’s understood that among parade participants sake consumption begins rather early in the day at the Daimo Festival so the violent shaking of the shrines seemed as enthusiastic as it was ceremonial.

It was an unforgettable afternoon and, like Alex, I was delighted to be there. Being included in, and given the opportunity to witness a cultural event that dates back centuries and is pretty much totally alien to one’s own experience is an honor. I should point out that the Daimo Festival is no doubt far more subtle and nuanced than I have described but I can only pass on what I’ve heard and read. Suffice to say , it was a great afternoon that I’ll long remember.

But there’s more.

Afterwards our hostess took us on a tour of the very house we sat in front of for the parade. Not particularly auspicious from the street, it was astonishingly beautiful within. Apparently it had been an inn or hotel at one time and dated back to the Edo era (more than 250 years). Although there was nothing to suggest it was in any way a public building, there were rooms preserved with a museum-like attention to detail. Art, china, maps, sculpture and historical artifacts were perfectly displayed in a labyrinth-like building of steep staircases and beautiful rooms. It seems there was a private residence attached to this museum-like building but, not speaking Japanese (yet!); I can’t say. Like so many other places in Niimi, it had a channel of water diverted from the Takahashi River running through it. The river in Niimi courses through the town, sustaining it, like blood through a body. That may sound a tad pretentious but it’s true: I suppose the diversionary channels originally provided fresh water to homes but they now sustain rice fields and gardens and the ubiquitous gurgling water is heard everywhere. Every night I fall asleep to the sound of clean flowing water.

Having had the opportunity to enjoy a Japanese Daimo Festival, it was a pleasure on Saturday (yesterday) to reciprocate I suppose, and assist in helping with the Halloween Party at the Niimi College. Funekoshi-sensei, the teacher I assist in the special needs class (my favorite), has told me that Halloween was unheard of in Japan when she was young. Although they do not “trick or treat” door to door, they do now have parties and Halloween displays are ubiquitous everywhere. Andrew, Nathan, Stacey, Alex, David, and myself pedaled to the college yesterday morning to help out with the party. The kids were were quite young and we read a couple of Halloween books, judged their costumes (everyone got a medal), and handed out candy. Yes, the kids were adorably cute! We had a lot of fun.


A day at school: Part 2

With 4,360 participants from more than 40 countries in 2012, the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET),  is the largest teaching exchange program in the world. Referred to as JETs, participants are hired as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), and placed  in schools within a Japanese Prefecture (district), in my case the Prefecture of Okayama. I’m a bit of an anomaly in that, although I’m employed as an ALT, I am the only ALT I’m aware of who is not a JET; a fact readily evinced by the fact that I’m more than twice the age of my fellow ALTS. In short, give or take a few years, I am roughly twice the age of my contemporaries.

With regard to my fellow ALTs I’d have to say that the selection process (which to a certain extent I may have circumvented), must have been fairly rigorous: Without exception these are some of the brightest, committed and most articulate people I know. Care for a wee chin-wag about the films of Altman or Scorsese, imagery and symbolism in Borge’s novels or Leonard Cohen’s importance as a Canadian singer, poet and icon? No problem: These are typical conversations I’ve had just recently. Of the fourteen ALTs (I believe) in and around Niimi, I work with three of them at two Junior High schools; Daiichi and Minami.

Nathan (from one of my favorite cities; Portland, Oregon) teaches at Minami, which is a little more rural than Daiichi.  Minami is my “secondary” school and I only work there on Fridays. Months before leaving Sidney for Japan I emailed Nate asking him what I might expect when I arrived in Japan. Any trepidation I had about coming to Japan was allayed by his off-the-cuff, informative and funny three-page reply. His email correspondence really set my mind at ease and working with him in the classroom has been a learning experience (he’s in his fifth and final year as an ALT). I shamelessly rip-off his teaching style and mannerisms in my classes at Daiichi. On weekends I’ve enjoyed having a Heineken with Nate at my favorite pub, Nemunoke. How can you not like a pub that plays jazz and has posters of John Coltrane and James Dean?

Andrew. I don’t know anyone who has immersed himself in Japanese culture with a greater commitment than Andrew. In his fourth year as an ALT, Andrew has completed advanced courses in Japanese and, if he is not fully bilingual, is very close to it. He tells me he has problems with Japanese verb conjugation – I have problems saying hello! He and Naomi Sugi are the two people who have most assisted me in dealing with the practical realities (banking, bill paying etc.) faced by newcomers to the country. Andrew teaches an evening English class once a week at a local community center that he graciously allows me to attend. What I really love about the class is that the students (middle-aged adults) come as much to socialize in English as much as they do strictly to learn. Some have been attending for years. A woman brings tea and snacks for the break after the first hour. We play English-learning games like Hangman and Scrabble; it is a pleasure to be there. Andrew is from Port Dalhousie which is very close to my original hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Only the university is pronounced ” Dal-Housey” by the way – most people in Southern Ontario say “Da-Loozie”. With respect to teaching ESL to Japanese students Andrew may well be “the smartest guy in the room”. The students adore him! Daiichi is Andrew’s secondary school and I work with him on Mondays and Thursdays.

Stacey, now in her second year, is the other American ALT I work with. She’s from California and has a very confident and easy-going classroom manner. She is attuned to the nuances of the Japanese English teacher and intuitively knows exactly when to contribute and when to stand back. To my mind, knowing exactly where you are with respect to the “sensei” is the most important part of being an ALT and Stacey is quite brilliant in that regard. Again, as with Nate and Andrew, I  blatantly steal from Stacey. She is at Daiichi on Wednesdays.

The other ALTS I know but do not work with in Niimi are Oana, Andrea, David, Alex, and Jack. Although I’ve never met her prior to coming to Japan, I have a particular affinity for Oana because she worked in Sidney. She doesn’t suffer fools kindly and has a great sense of humor. At the last ALT dinner (at a terrific restaurant) it was Oana who motivated the “room”  to open up and talk about themselves. Andrea is a little more reserved than Oana (they live in the same building and hang out together) and is writing a historical fiction novel based during the French revolution. I hope it gets published – that’s what I mean about capable, accomplished people. She has promised to give me a brief tutorial on how to text using a cell phone. I don’t often see David, Alex or Jack but they all seem like pretty interesting people and it’s likely I will bump into them in the near future.

Random Notes:

Regardless of how hot it might be, Japanese women will cover their arms to avoid getting a suntan. Tanned skin is considered “common”, I’ve been told.

Large trucks in Japan always look as if they have just rolled off the assembly line. Lots of chrome, freshly painted and sparkling clean. I have never seen a dirty truck in Japan.