Another posting from Andrew sensei


A Day in the Life – Part 1


So I thought I’d talk about the difference between an average school day in Canada and Japan. I guess the best way to explain the most glaring differences between the systems is to narrate a typical day stopping as I go to highlight the points of interest. I should also stress that this is from the point of view of someone working at a rural junior high school. While a lot of what I’ll explain is most likely common throughout the country it would be presumptions of me to declare it the Japanese Way.


I’ll use myself as the main character of this story: Andrew, 26 year old male, mostly trollish in appearance. Our plucky protagonist steps out the door of his old, but oh-so-cheap, apartment and jumps on his bike, ready to start his commute. Without finishing page 1 we’ve already hit upon a difference. While Andrew is afforded the great freedom of choosing which road to take, the option being a high traffic narrow road or a higher traffic narrower road, the students don’t have this luxury. Students that bike to school, which accounts for most of them, are required to follow a predetermined bike route, stay in a single file line, and walk their bikes over all train crossings. “All well and good but impossible to enforce” you say, firm in your beliefs. To make sure this happens, teachers and other community members stand along the bike paths and monitor the students as they make their way to school.


So we’ve made it to school and Andrew parks his bike at the back of the bike parking lot. The bike parking is also enforced. Students are given specific locations to park and it is separated by grade and gender. As Andrew makes his way to the front door he enjoys the sing song “good mornings” of the good students and ohayogozaimasus’ of the lazier lot. It all sounds so perfect, almost staged. That’s because it kind of is. Saying hello in the morning to teachers and other students is something that is judged and graded on each students report card under the heading of aisatsu; greetings. Choosing to believe the students are more interested in an honest hello than getting an A, Andrew makes his way into the school and immediately takes his shoes off. Outdoor shoes are a big no no in a lot of traditional Japanese interiors and the school is no exception. While this might not be a mind blowing revelation perhaps the shoe styles are. No one really cares what you are wearing as long as it’s not the pair you came in with. As such, most teachers just throw on whatever is comfortable, looks be dammed. This creates quite a visual clash where teachers walking around in their Sunday best are also sporting the latest in Hello Kitty slipper fashion.


Andrew is now into the school and enters the staff room. He gives his best ohayogozaimasu and the teachers respond in kind. I don’t think these ones are graded. I’ve never worked as a teacher in Canada so I can’t really speculate on differences within the staffroom but one thing that struck me, from the perspective of a former student, is the free flow of students into and out of the staffroom to talk with or hand things to the teachers. I’ve always remembered the staffroom as being this object of great mystery. The room where teachers plotted and schemed locked away from the prying eyes of students. Hell, it’s more commonly referred to as a teachers lounge. Sounds like a dingy place you’d find off some backstreet. Sign out front neon light with a flickering E. Low lighting, cheap décor, and contemporary Jazz humming low in the background. The aging math teacher, cigar in hand, drunk waltzes over to the young, attractive English teacher marking her stack of essays on a marbled counter top – “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”


The first major event of the day is about to begin: the staff meeting. Being that he’s not Japanese and has no real responsibilities or extra curricular activities at the school Andrew spends his time during the staff meetings working on his Japanese listening skills and polishing off a cup of coffee. The morning meeting goes over the basics: the day’s schedule, events past or present, current issues at the school, and student problems around town. Here again is another major departure between Japanese teachers and their western counterparts. A Japanese students’ homeroom teacher is in many ways considered a second parent to the child. They are expected not only to educate the students, but keep up to date with their goings on at home, life, and around the town. In many cases, should a student get in trouble out on the town their homeroom teacher is the first to get a call.  After the meeting ends there’s maybe another 20 minutes or so until the bell chimes (fun fact: many Japanese schools use the chime of Big Ben as the school bell) and it’s on to classes for the day.


The Japanese classroom. Let that idea marinate for a little bit in your head. What are your immediate assumptions? The teacher, sensei, standing proud in front of row after row of a subservient student body. Each part of the cog playing their part. The whole system working in harmonious order. Well I regret to inform you that students are students regardless where you are in the world. For every stereotypical quiet studious Japanese kid there’s either a student that never pays attention, one that never speaks, one you wish would stop speaking, and three sleeping in the back. There’s certainly an overall formality present in a Japanese classroom that isn’t seen at home. For example, I’ve never seen a student late for class and at the beginning and ending of every lesson the students stand in unison and bow. That being said it’s still full of all the tropes you’d expect from the life and times of a Junior High School classroom. Our hero steps into the lions den as the students slowly file back into the class. They’ve taken their seats. Big Ben again rings though the halls, signaling the beginning of the period. The congregation rises, bows, and takes a seat. Andrew takes a breath, dons a smile and starts with a tried and true.


“Good morning everyone!”


Mind your language!

 I  really must improve my Japanese conversational skills. I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day trying to do just that. I’ve pretty much got the Kana (two of the three alphabets or, more accurately, syllabary)  down cold but find the Kanji (the complicated symbols “borrowed” from the Chinese) pretty intimidating. To be considered “moderately proficient” in the language, one is expected to master slightly fewer than two thousand Kanji – any other country of course, would simply round the figure off to two thousand – the Japanese though, have determined that it is a specific number, something like 1984, (I deliberately chose that number and it is not accurate). Sadly, it seems unlikely the Japanese have any intention of “returning” Kanji to the Chinese. On the plus side however, knowing the Kana enables me, albeit painstakingly, to translate any non-Kanji sentence into English. Interestingly enough, any sentence can be written in Kana without using Kanji characters at all. But no – “THAT’S JUST WHAT THEY’D EXPECT!” In fact, (seriously folks!)  I’ve read that a possible reason for the intermingling of Hiragana, Katakana (collectively known as Kana) and Kanji is that, because there is no spacing between words in Japanese, the continuous stream of uninterrupted similar characters simply becomes just too daunting to follow. The intermingling of different  syllabary characters seem to serve as natural “breaks” in the sentence, or exclamation points. I hasten to add that people far more erudite than myself might say this is completely untrue or just a gross over-simplification, and I would be the first to defer to their better judgment. I’m big enough to admit I might be completely wrong on this. Oh yes, Japanese is also written vertically as well as horizontally, reading from the back of the book towards the front. Are we clear? Good!
In any case, with regard to Katakana, I should add that it is relatively easy easy to learn because, for the most part, the words are derived from English. We can infer that: is: Canada
O.ta.wa is: Ottawa is: Amsterdam
Ko.hi is: coffee is: cake
Oh yes: The characters I have used ( for example) are Romaji: Roman equivalents of phonetic Japanese sounds (think of it as cheating for the purpose of easy pronunciation). Again; are we clear? Without a Japanese keyboard on my laptop I cannot show you the hiragana characters but I’m assuming that’s OK.
Although I’ve poked a little fun at the Japanese language in this post, I should also make it very clear that, in many ways, Japanese is far more sensible than English. English, for example has an almost infinite combination of vowel sounds or diphthongs that are almost incomprehensible to foreign speakers.Think of the various ways in which various vowel combinations make differing sounds in English: In Japanese, the pronunciations are far more limited and very clear. In addition, there are no articles. Forget words like a, an and the. When you really think of it, they are unnecessary words in any case. In correcting the English lessons of Japanese students, probably the most common errors they make are to omit articles and misunderstand tenses.  Understandably, articles baffle them. “I store go”, when you think of it, has an appealing brevity and makes far more sense than “I go to the store”. Japanese assumes that you are smart enough to infer certain things.
Are we clear? Ta for now;
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A post from a friend and fellow Niimi ALT

Hello Sidney. My name is Andrew Scales. I’m a fourth year JET originally from St. Catharines, Ontario; not too far from Terry’s picturesque hometown of Hamilton. Terry has asked me to guest write a few blog posts and I’m more than happy to oblige. To be completely honest with you I’ve never actually written a blog, nor do I really read them. I’m not quite sure how much weight my opinions hold so forgive me while I test the waters. It’s been a few years since I’ve written anything of value for native English speakers so I apologize if the prose is lacking. While I may not be able to give you flowery descriptions of Japanese society I can, quite proficiently, tell you that “I like dogs.” Anyway, on with the show.

I thought as my first post I’d talk about the reason I’ve found myself assisting Terry in not only daily life, but this blog as well: a very Japanese mentor system known as the senpai-kohai relationship. I guess the easiest way to translate the phrase (read: Wikipedia definition) would be a senior-junior system of assistance. Right away I need to clarify that this has nothing to do with age. Being generous, Terry was witness to the rise and fall of empires before I was born. In terms of life experiences as a whole, Terry is clearly my senpai; the wise old sage he is. In turn I am the kohai; the junior, milk still wet on my lip. While Japan certainly has a reverence for it’s elders, age isn’t really the focus of the senpai-kohai relationship. Senpai-kohai relations develop through two individuals that work in the same company, are part of the same club, and even belong to the same social circle. It’s an unwritten and mostly assumed social contract in which the individual with more experience, such as joining a company or club at an earlier date, becomes the senpai and acts as a guide for individual with less experience; the kohai. The kohai, in return, respects the senpai for their guidance. As you can probably see, even though age isn’t strictly the focus of the relationship, more often than not the senpai is the literal elder of the two.

I’m not trying to imply that there’s no comparable system of mentors and proteges in Western society (thanks again Wikipedia!) but the level to which it seems to permeate society here is unlike anything I’ve seen at home. Regardless of the social or societal situation, those in Japan with more experience seem to instinctively assist those with less while those with less instinctively respect and appreciate the help of their mentors. It’s a relationship that develops naturally and can last a lifetime. Japanese people will refer to their senpais and kohais by those same titles long after the relationship has ended. It’s also not a mutuality exclusive concept. A kohai will become someones senpai with enough experience and vice versa when someone enters into a new situation in which they lack experience. To make it even more complex all of this isn’t to say that it’s an oppressive or rigid system. Nobody is trying to cement a legacy or bring out the whip to demand perfection. It’s simply a benign system of paying-it-forward that exists for the greater good of society. No matter which social situation you find yourself in, all over Japan you can seen the effects of the relationship at work. All of this of course exists within the framework of the larger Japanese concept of social harmony but that’s a story for another day and one I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t think any foreigner can.

So here I am. Writing a blog post for Terry. An idea that came out of helping him with a presentation on Vancouver Island. Assistance that came out of helping my new kohai at work. Just as Terry’s predecessor aided me when I arrived in Japan I’m aiding him. At the end of the day you can call it being a good person, or Canadian for short; however, I think somewhere, deep down inside, all my time in Japan has guided my actions just a little. It happened to me. It’ll happen to almost everyone that spends any significant portion of time here.

When in Rome…

Random notes


I have today (Monday), off work in lieu of having worked on Saturday; parents day. It was an interesting day. I awoke at 6:30am, the usual time and it was cold. Compared with Sidney it’s not particularly cold but, in Japan there is no real central heating or insulation so there is a pervasive and pernicious dampness that always reminds you that it is winter. Even in the schools, although the classes are heated, the hallways are not and you are well-advised to wear a sweater. Many students, and adults for that matter, wear surgical masks at this time of year to curtail the transmission of flu and colds. It’s interesting to consider that something North Americans would not even consider for a moment, probably saves the Japanese health care system the equivalent of millions of dollars a year. But that’s Japan: It’s about the common good.  But I digress: Saturday!

It was cold. By noon though, the temperature had risen to 18 degrees. It was like summer. There was only one English class scheduled and I attended with Andrew (who is in his fourth year as an ALT)  and of course, the sensei.  Sensei is a great teacher, knowledgeable and with a great sense of humor that engages her students. She drew upon Andrew to assist the lesson and I pretty much stood there for 50 minutes with a rictus-like grin on my face doing nothing. I cannot fault sensei though, she and Andrew  have worked together for at least a year and clearly have a very comfortable working relationship. With parents lining the back of the room, she had to bring her “best game” to the classroom and Andrew “works the room” like Sinatra in Las Vegas. The students adore him.

On Andrew’s  recommendation we went to a curry restaurant for lunch. The food was great. Prior to moving to  Japan I’d eaten in dozens of Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto,  but have never seen  curry on any menu. In  Japanese supermarkets, curry dishes generally  assume more space than the cheese, bread and breakfast cereals sections combined.

I arrived in Niimi on August 20th and to date, have not really left the town. Naomi has actually sent me an email that included various train schedules and destinations. I could defend my un-peripatetic lifestyle by saying that I had to wait for a wi-fi connection,  acclimate to schools, and learn how to pay bills. Truth is though, I’ve already done those things and I really should be doing some travelling. I’ ll be going to Kyoto in December. Kyoto, the original capital of Japan, is noted for having more than 1,700 Buddhist temples, 300 Shinto shrines, gardens, palaces, museums and galleries. I’m looking forward to visiting.

Rather than stay at a hotel,  I’m hoping to book a room at a Ryokan. A Ryokan is a traditional  Japanese Inn. Royokans , at their best , preserve the history of traditional Japanese Inns. Owners take pride in preserving a building that reflects a traditional atmospheric history.  Preservation of a true Ryokan is traditionally considered to be more important than the comfort of the guests.


Ta for now.