Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I realize that recently this blog has taken a cynical turn when it comes to all things Japanese. I’ve been pretty stressed recently, and it’s only natural that these feelings would surface in the fiction I’ve been posting. Since I started this blog I’ve been wary of letting negative feelings worm their way into what I post; for, if left unchecked, negativity can easily turn into an all-out internet rant-fest the likes of which we’ve all seen on a thousand message boards and Facebook status updates.

However, that’s not to say that writers can’t harness cynicism to horrify, shock, inspire, inform, rouse to action, or simply to make people laugh at the stupidity of the system. Swift couldn’t have written Gulliver’s Travels if he hadn’t been just plain pissed off at the way humans were behaving, nor could Joseph Heller have written any of his novels without the skeptical eyes he constantly turned toward the world. Not that I am so arrogant as to compare myself to either of these writers; I mention them merely as examples of how cynicism can be used to create something meaningful, not annoying.

The project I’m planning for May was certainly born out of frustration, but I hope the end result will be something thought-provoking. I don’t mean to be mysterious, but look for an update sometime before the end of this month when I head off to Nagoya (a city known for its miso dishes, auto-production, and the birthplace of the Tokugawa regime) during my Golden Week vacation.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to point out two excellent blogs belonging to fellow gaijin. Life's Too Short for Cheap Whiskey is run by my friend Tom, who recently finished his contract with a certain eikaiwa corporation I shan't mention here. In only a few months he's written some excellent in-depth essays at Japanese cultural issues that are a must-read for anyone interested in modern Japan (and make my own blog seem cheerfully optimistic). For something more lighthearted but no less informative, check out fellow Bennington alum Heke's blog, Shiso Style. Hers provides an insider's perspective on the Japanese public school system and some fine anecdotes, all with a layout that's artistically-pleasing .

Finally, some of my readers (and by some, I really mean both) may have noticed a small change in some of my past entries. Nothing serious, just a little precaution I decided to take rather than risk attracting unwanted attention. After all, you never know who might be reading.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Weak Minds

The following entry, like everything else in this blog, is completely fictitious, and any resemblance to any real people, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed by the fictitious characters within this fictitious entry are also purely fictitious, and are based on ideas the author has acquired by studying various anthropological studies of Japan. Any resemblance that these opinions may hold to any actual opinions of any actual people is purely coincidental, and these opinions are not meant to be taken as representative of any actual individuals or groups.

The English conversation school where I work occupies the fifth floor of a half-empty building located between a pachinko parlor and a soft-jazz izakiya. The first and sixth floors of the building house Leopalace, a nationwide chain of real estate developers whose hastily-built apartment complexes resemble miniature prisons. On the top floor is a school for teenagers who, for various reasons, have been deemed unfit for regular school. Sometimes I see them walking to the elevator, sporting hair tossed in massive waves and wearing brightly-colored, mismatched clothing; but I know very little about them.

One of the students from this school also comes to Kriasho. He is always eager, never afraid, to talk to foreign teachers, and from our conversations I’ve gathered that he is very intelligent. He speaks English moderately well but very slowly, often crossing his arms while he plots out his sentences. I asked one of my co-workers why he goes to a special school, and she didn’t know the English word to explain. She keyed a command into her dictionary and turned it toward me. “He has this,” she said quizzically:

bipolar disorder (n)

The other day at lunch, this student came up in conversation, whereupon another co-worker commented on his condition. “He seems so smart,” she said, frowning, “it’s a shame that he has such a weak mind.”

I had a sudden flash of everyone I knew who’d ever struggled with depression, who’d ever taken medication for a mental disorder, who’d ever talked to me about their problems; then of my own darkest moments; and finally of the day the ambulance drove away from Welling. I thought about how all but a few Japanese people avoid seeking professional help for mental problems. I chose my words carefully.

“In the West, we don’t believe that depressed people have weak minds, and actually, most people are quite comfortable—“

My point was lost as someone spilled a small portion of nikujaga and several frantic hands reached to wipe it up. The same co-worker picked up again:

“I think that really intelligent people often have weak minds. I would hate to be that smart if it meant that I would have a weak mind too.”

I cursed the nikujaga that had spoiled my argument but couldn’t gather my thoughts enough to respond coherently before the conversation switched to Japanese and my chance was lost. I wonder how much good it would have done had I been able to speak. (I like to think it would have done a little.) I wish this type of thing came up more often so that I’d have more chances to share my opinions, but unfortunately the Japanese people’s preferred method for dealing with these problems is to just not talk about them, I'm sorry to say.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

And so, the Mighty Fall...

The big news at the office today was that Geos (one of Japan's largest English conversation school chains, and my school's main competitor) filed bankruptcy earlier this week. The early warning signs (school consolidation, delayed salary payment, and most recently the closing of the company's Australian schools) have been muttered and chuckled over by gossiping gaijin since I've been in Japan, but I didn't expect the end to come this soon. It's too early to tell what this could mean for the eikaiwa business or for the hundreds of gaijin employed by Geos, but word has it that the same company who bought out many of the Nova schools is taking over a piece of the Geos empire. You can read more about the bankruptcy here and here (or peruse my entry on Nova's nosedive for some background info).

The fall of Nova and Geos within the span of three years raises further doubts about the ability of the giant eikaiwa chains to effectively push their cookie-cutter lessons and high-pressure sales strategies across Japan. Whether my own employer is destined to collapse is anyone's guess, but it'd be downright foolish to not consider the possibility as part of any long-term Japan plan. I'll be following this issue with great interest.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

O-miyuki Matsuri

As the lipstick, kimonos, and crepe-paper umbrella in the above photo may have made clear, Matt and I spent last Thursday morning at a local festival, compliments of one of our students. Though all of Kofu was rocked last weekend by the food venders and excessive crowds of the yearly Shingen-ko festival, Ichinomiya's O-miyuki festival was more of a local daytime affair (though with many of the same food venders selling yakisoba, takoyaki, and corn dogs). We had woken up at five AM and donned these classy costumes chiefly so that we could carry the Japanese o-mikoshi (portable shrine) shown below.

This bad boy weighed a leg-bending 800 kilograms (1760 pounds) and was supported by two sturdy beams, rather like a souped-up version of the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders. Two teams from local villages (of which Matt and I were naturally the only gaijin, and quite possibly the only gaijin to ever carry this particular o-mikoshi) supplied about fifty people, of which sixteen would switch off holding the shrine. Carrying it wouldn't have been so bad if the team hadn't insisted on bouncing it on their shoulders while shifting their weight from one foot to the other and chanting "Soko, dai!" (Our goal is over there!). It also didn't help that I was the tallest member of our team, and once made the mistake of joining a crew whose average height was about eight inches shorter than me.

The next day, as I was dealing with the effects of sore muscle groups I didn't know I had, one of my students brought in a copy of that day's Yamanashi Nichinichi Shimbun covering the festival, and lo and behold, one of the photos just happened to include me in the background carrying the o-mikoshi with a strained look on my face. I wouldn't say that it was one of my goals to be pictured in a Japanese newspaper, but it sure makes a good story. Sadly, I wasn't able to locate an online version of the article, although anyone with a lot of Japanese skill or free time is more than welcome to try.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Japanese Meetings

The following entry, like everything else in this blog, is a work of pure fiction. The incidents and opinions do not refer to the author’s employer or any other actual Japanese company, and all sentiments herein are the compiled result of heresay and careful research. Any implied connection between modern corporate Japan and Showa-era aggression policies is also purely imaginary.

One of my students is a college professor at the local university. On this particular Friday evening he came into class with his head down and shoulders slumped after what he described as an egregiously boring meeting. Having that afternoon suffered through an hour-long meeting rife with excessive Head Office managerial control, I empathized.

“Are American meetings,” he said, thinking over each word before he spoke, “similar to Japanese meetings?”

The time it took for me to respond in the negative was approximately equal to the time it takes a beam of florescent light to travel from the Teacher’s Room ceiling to the hastily pinned up copies of this month’s Self Study Achievement Ratios. We had a good laugh over this.

“My image,” he continued, again choosing his words carefully, “is that Western meetings have some...purpose.”

Yeah, that sums it up pretty well.

It is difficult to describe the stiff, uncomfortable atmosphere of a Japanese meeting; particularly on the days when some unseen committee at the Head Office has contrived some elaborate procedure for classroom management and passed it on to the Branch Managers, who’ve passed it on to the Head Teachers, who are holding a meeting to pass it on to the foreign teachers, who will promptly ignore it as soon as the meeting is over. All decisions of any importance have already been made before the meeting starts, and the actual meeting is merely an assembly to formally pass on these orders to subordinates like yours truly. We sit in a semi-circle around the Head Teacher as she reads from neatly typed Head Office documents (which often contain simple English mistakes that I take great pleasure in circling with my blue pen) and nod robotically, mumbling the occasional hai, wakarimashita, or “I understand.” Breaks for questions are followed by brief silences where we stare uncomfortably at the floor; for to ask a question would be seen as admitting one’s weakness in not understanding orders; or worse: an attempt to oppose the Head Office’s wishes.

Orders from a superior have a kind of sanctity in Japan. For teachers to question an order from the Head Office, no matter how much it adds to their workload or how nonsensical it appears, would be unheard of. Other decisions made by Branch Managers, School Mangers, or Head Teachers carry similar weight; and should any employee be daring enough to point out some flaw in the plan or justify an alternate method, their argument would be immediately dismissed as going against the established order. In corporate Japan, your opinion does not matter.

It is no wonder then that I was so surprised upon coming here and seeing people nod mindlessly at their boss without so much as a stray comment; behavior that would be interpreted by most Americans as blatantly not listening. It disappoints me to see them accepting orders without critical thought, questioning whether the order is feasible, or attempting to understand the intentions behind it. Don’t even think about refusing, for that would be unheard of (people would look at you strangely). Theirs is a culture of obeying; often expressed in English by bosses with that ubiquitous phrase we need you to:

We need you to wear a suit to work every day.
We need you to talk to students in the lobby between every class, even if you’re busy.
We need you to schedule a counseling session with all students, whether they want it or not.
We need you to use the daily pronunciation practice sheet at the beginning of every lesson, no matter how good the students’ pronunciation already is.
We need you to finish these measurements by tomorrow morning, even if you have to work all night without sleep to do so.
We need you to go on a business trip to Seoul this weekend. We know you had vacation plans, but you’ll have to reschedule.
We need you to work six days a week until after ten PM. We know that you have a wife and children who you want to spend time with, but we’re very busy now and the work must be finished.
We need you to transfer to Osaka next month. We know that your friends, family, and your entire life are here, but we’re closing your branch and you have to go.
We need you to crash this special kamikaze plane into the foreign battleship, killing all of the enemy onboard and yourself. We know that you really wanted to live past age nineteen, but it’s imperative to our success in the war.

Shikatta ga nai. In Japan, these things happen.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Focus Point Unit 6, Day 2: Preposition Clusters

First Exposure: Think of a problematic relationship you’ve had with a boss or teacher. Tell the class.

My sophomore year of high school, my old French teacher left to work at a different school. Her replacement was a lawyer without any teaching experience who focused solely on grammar and vocabulary without giving us any real experience in the language. Under her guidance, French class became a tedious series of rote memorizations. I didn’t agree with her teaching style at all, and wanted more of a chance to actually speak the French we were learning. I also missed the more creative activities the old teacher had given us, and recalled times when she would joke with our class all in French.

Even more frustrating was that the new teacher treated us like children, with assigned seating and excessive rules. My opinion differed from hers in that I believe that students perform best when given appropriate amounts of freedom, which teaches them more responsibility. In French class, I felt there were too many restrictions, so I refused to cooperate with the teacher. I made fun of her when she wasn’t around, acted out in class, and pointed out her mistakes whenever I could. She knew I hated her class, but there wasn’t much she could do. We were always at odds with each other.

I dealt with that teacher for two years, and it was a relief to finally escape from her class. The experience showed me how much I hate structure and regulation, but more importantly gave me a model for the type of teacher I never wanted to become.