Saturday, February 23, 2008

miniT fever, catch it!

Kyoko on stageWhile I was teaching in Hamamatsu, I sometimes tutored individual students after school, typically in English conversation or composition in preparation for entrance exams. One day, I was approached by a homeroom teacher and asked to help one of her students. This girl also wanted English conversation lessons, but not for school. No, this girl needed to learn English because she was planning on moving to the US to become a rock star. I thought that was audaciously wrongheaded, and immediately told the teacher to have the girl meet me that day after class.

The girl that scuttled up to my desk that day was a second year named Kyoko that I had taught the year previously. Once I saw her I remembered her as the girl that did not speak or volunteer once in class the whole year only to suddenly deliver a flawless speech about her love of music for the final oral test.

We walk downstairs, find an empty classroom, and start talking. I am trying to be as delicate as I can, since she looks to be in danger of wilting under my gaze and going into a swoon at any moment. I ask her why she wants to practice English, and sure enough, she lets out that she's on her way to the States and, presumably, future rock godhead. She confesses to me that she already sings and plays lead guitar in a band called "miniT" with her two girlfriends. Tentatively - since I'm so excited at the idea of a student having a dream larger than working in a company that I'm hesistant to crush it, however incredibly absurd it may be - I ask her a series of questions: Does she realize she can't just go and stay in the US? How does she plan on getting a visa? Where will she live? Where in the US does she want to go? She is troubled. She doesn't seem to have thought very hard about any of these things. But, of course, she's just a 15 year old girl; she doesn't have to. I leave that for the next time, and instead we talk about music for an hour or so and call it a day.

We continue to meet at least twice a week after school each week. She becomes more comfortable talking to me - though never loses her nervousness completely, and, charmingly, always walks a step or so behind me while we walk downstairs to the classroom for each lesson, too self-conscious to walk together with me in front of other students. Gradually I convince her that the idea of just arriving in the US to instant stardom is a bit farfetched, but that if she's really serious about going, the easiest way is to go to college and then study abroad. That way, she'll be able to go on a student visa and see if she actually wants to live in the real country, not the US she holds in her mind pieced together from pop culture and popular prejudice. I point out that college is also a great place to meet other musically-inclined people, and if she wanted to form or join a band in the US that may be the easiest road. Finally, I make the obvious economic sale for college obliquely, asserting that realistically, only the most successful artists actually make enough money to survive on music alone, so she'll just have to do work of some kind. The difference is that as a college graduate she'll be able to do something easier and better-paid than waiting tables in between tours. I leaven these laudable yet leaden life lessons with lots of cds I burn for her from music on my computer. She proves receptive both to my advice and my musical taste.

A few months later is the school festival, and miniT is headlining the concert portion in the gym. Kyoko's band is playing 3 covers of American pop punk hits (some Avril Lavigne songs) along with one original composition, called "Let's Diet", that Kyoko wrote in English and asked me to correct for her, which I did to the best of my ability. Meaning I did so with the aim in mind of not making it into idiomatic English, since it would then lose the charm of phrases that no native speaker would think of. She also asked me for the specific pronunciations of different words in the songs, and then came to me constantly in the days leading up to the festival to double check her pronunciation and make sure she hadn't gotten it mixed up in the interim between meetings with me. There's actually a video on YouTube of her band performing this song in concert, along with subtitles:

miniT - "Let's Diet"

Needless to say, miniT was a big hit at the school festival. While I was pleasantly surprised by how capable and tight they performed their songs, I thought their problem was the material they were covering or being inspired by. Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff aren't exactly fertile ground - in a musical sense, at least - and unlikely to inspire anything more than more cynical attempts to co-opt punk culture. What's strange or sad about Japan is that listening to Avril kind of would be punk there, since even American pop is quite hip compared to the insanely over-produced and under-performed sugar slurry of J-Pop. At least Avril songs have actual instruments in them.

For comparison's sake, here's a song by SMAP, the most popular pop group in Japan for like the last decade, none of whose members can actually sing alone, let alone together:

SMAP - "Sekai ni Hitsotsu dake no Hana" (The Only Flower in the World)

You'd think if you got 5 guys in a group together, you'd practice harmonizing, or at least, introduce the concept. But no.

There's also Ayumi Hamasaki, the "Empress of Pop," who has sold 50 million records and had a #1 single every year for 10 years, but does not look or sing like a human being. Or Def Tech, this unbelievably terrible rap group that had a hit with this one song for what seemed like the duration of my time in the JET Programme:

Def Tech - "My Way"

Shudder... I would often tell my students that if they didn't hate that song passionately they clearly needed to study more English to improve their listening comprehension.

Anyway, my point was that in comparison to this kind of "music," Avril is pretty fantastic. But like I told Kyoko, considering she's playing her own guitar, writing songs, and performing without intense vocal modulation, she's already cooler than Avril, so she should aim a little higher. I give her cds by bands that might be a little more suited for her goals - like Sleater-Kinney, an all-girl rock group - along with bios of each of the bands. Later, she tells me which songs she liked on each album and we talk about why, which leads to more recommendations. One day, she tells me she really liked the Pixies album Surfer Rosa, and it occurs to me that the song "Gigantic" is actually one of the few songs on the album sung by the female bassist. I do a quick search online, find the guitar and bass tabs, print them out, and pass them along to Kyoko.

Months later, after I've left the school and moved to Tokyo, I get a DVD in the mail with a note from Kyoko. She tells me the DVD is a recording of a recent concert in Hamamatsu, and I'm to specifically watch the part that starts about 9 minutes in.

And there I find miniT performing "Gigantic" by the Pixies:

In her note, she apologizes for the poor performance, saying it was their first try at playing it live. She also tells me that she's studying hard now so she can attend college next year and be able to study abroad in the US. I'm hoping the next time I see Kyoko will be playing a gig somewhere in LA or NYC, and though I'd love to see her play the Pixies live, I'm looking forward more to seeing what she's been inspired to write on her own.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Hey, sloth! Get up! Today is Valentine's Day!"

Over the summer, a student of mine was in Santa Barbara for an exchange program for three weeks. I invited her and her friends down to my house for a weekend (actually, I invited her and she asked if she could bring a friend, a single friend that somehow became 2 friends, likely thanks to Japanese's lack of plural signifiers for nouns, which leads to students making a lot of mistakes when producing English sentences, though typically they do not lead to the production of additional human beings).

I thought since Valentine's Day has just passed us by, I'd post the picture book she gave me that her older sister wrote and illustrated. I laughed until I cried as I read it and was yet inconsolable for some time afterwards. Her family apparently has some sort of strange obsession with sloths. They think they are adorable, despite the fact that the sloth is really one of the most singularly unattractive of animals in that kingdom. Of course, their depictions of sloths - which extend beyond drawings to actual miniature sloth dolls and even, in December, a Santa Sloth wreath - bear very little resemblance to the actual animal, so their image of the sloth is quite cute. I've scanned in pictures of the book and transcribed the dialogue below:

Boy: "Hey, sloth! Get up! Today is Valentine's Day!"
Sloth: "Good morning... Why are you so..."
Boy: "Oh, hurry up! Let's make a chocolate cake."
A boy took sloth to kitchen.
Sloth: "Why do you want to make a cake?"
Boy: "Well... I want to give it to a woman who I love."
Sloth: "Wow! You are precocious."

Then, they began to cook.

Sloth: "I'll taste the cake to see if it is sweet enough."
Boy: ...Wow... Yummy!!"
Sloth: "Really? Now, I'll taste it, too. ...Oh, yummy!"

They kept eating the cake. they left little cake.

? (both Sloth and Boy, perhaps): "Oh no!!"
Mrs. Slow came there.
Mrs. Slow: "Hello. Are you making something sweet?"
"It smells good," she said.

The boy turn to red.
Boy: "Sorry... I want you to eat that... But..."
Sloth: "Mrs. Slow, would you like to eat this cake?"
Sloth invited her to eat the cake.
Mrs. Slow: "Oh, please. Thank you."
Sloth: "Boy and me made this cake.
Boy said, 'Today is Valentine's Day. I'll give it to a woman who I love.' However, we tasted it too much."
Sloth: "Wow! Sloth! You shouldn't have told her it!"

Mrs. Slow smiled.
And kissed the boy.

Mrs. Slow: "It's so sweet. Thank you."
Sloth felt, "Saint Valentine's Day is a very very sweet day."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel (pt.2)

This was actually written a while back, but I finally finished the last part so I could post it already.

Previously I wrote about the Japanese national anthem "Kimi ga yo" and how its adoption as an anthem seems to stand at odds with the goal of a modern and democratic Japan.

I was thinking about the song myself after one of the many school assemblies at which one is required to sing the song - where I typically moan along to the melody more than mouth the lyrics of the song itself (actually this is what I do with the school song too, since I don't know the words except for the last line where you say the name of the school, so it's just like "aaahhhhhh owwwwwaaaa ohhhhhhh ohhhhhaaaaaa ahhhhhhh...Hamamatsu Minami Koukou~"). I had English club later that day, so I asked a couple kids what they think about when they sing the anthem.

Student A: "What do you mean?"
Me: "Well, considering what the song is about, how do you feel when you sing it?"
Student A: "What do you mean, 'what the song is about'?"
Me: "You know, since it's all about the Emperor."
(Turns to another student next to him)
Student A: "Wait, it's about the Emperor?!"
Student B: "Yeah...something like that."
Me: (Incredulously) "Are you seriously telling me you don't know what the song is about? You've been singing the song at every school event for the last 10 years!"
Student A: (Whining) "But I learned it when I was like in first grade, so I didn't know what it was about!"
Me: "Are you arguing you still have the mind of a first grader?"
Student A: "No, but..."
Me: " just have no concern for the words coming out of your mouth? Clearly."

After this conversation - and telling the kid to go home and read a damn book - I decided I had to create a lesson about this topic for the next club meeting. At first I was simply going to talk about problems with the Japanese anthem, but I realized that direct censure of another person's culture typically does nothing but solidify opposition, even from those who might otherwise agree. People become defensive at the very idea of an American giving them a lecture, the boundaries between us harden, and the possibility for change or reconciliation approaches zero. Japanese people don't want to hear a lecture from an American any more than I want to hear one from some German on a train.

So I thought of a more roundabout way of addressing the topic: I began club that day by playing "Kimi ga yo" on a stereo, then wrote up on the board and explained the definition of national anthem: "a patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity." Each student received a copy of both the Japanese lyrics for the Japanese anthem and their English translation. I adopted a Socratic method, asking students what the anthem was about, what sort of tone it has, what sort of feeling it invoked in them, and why this particular song might have been chosen as the national anthem to begin with. Then, I split students into pairs and distributed to each group two of the English translations of the lyrics of the national anthems of some 15 or so countries - Canada, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Norway, Palestine, The Philippines, South Africa, South Korea - without any country named affixed. I wrote the list of countries on the board and asked students to read the lyrics and try to guess which country their anthems came from.

This proved to be far, far more difficult for them to figure out than I would have ever imagined. Of course, I thought some countries may have proved difficult - Norway or Switzerland, for example - but though I had removed the names of the countries themselves from both the title and anywhere it might have appeared in the song itself, some lyrics contained hints so glaring I worried some students might find the thing easy to the point of boredom.

But my students really have a way of surprising you with their ignorance.

One girl calls me over and laments that no matter how many times she reads her set of lyrics, she just cannot figure out what country it is. I myself don't have all the songs and countries memorized, of course, but I take one look at the page and point out the second line: "Let our flesh and blood become our new Great Wall!" I point at it and give her a significant look. She frowns and looks down - in embarrassment, I think, which fills me with a blend of satisfaction and relief - but then turns her head back to me again and says, "e? wakaranai!" (Wha? I don't get it!) I take a pen out of my pocket and underline the words "Great Wall" and raise my eyebrows at her. She stares at me blankly. It takes a few minutes more - during which I am reduced to pantomiming arriving at and climbing a large wall - for her to figure it out.

Another student raises his hand and flags me down. He and his partner are completely baffled by one of their songs. I see which one it is and have to collect myself for a second because it is by far the easiest one. Here is the anthem that left these two kids stumped (where * is the name of the country appearing in the song):

"O! Dispenser of *****'s destiny, thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, the Maratha country,
in the Dravida country, Utkala and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
it mingles in the rhapsodies of the pure waters of Jamuna and the Ganges.
They chant only thy name.
They seek only thy auspicious blessings.
They sing only the glory of thy victory.
The salvation of all people waits in thy hands,
O! Dispenser of *****'s destiny, thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Victory to thee, Victory to thee,
Victory, Victory, Victory, Victory to thee."

Can you guess the country? I've bolded the key words above, to help you out. If you were this particular boy, you would guess, "America?" And you would then be ruthlessly castigated by me regarding your disconcertingly imprecise knowledge of world geography ("The Himalayas are in America, huh? The Himalayas stretch across seven countries, but America is most certainly not one of them. Are you even familiar with the continents of the world?"). Incidentally, this is the same boy - Student A above - that didn't know the Japanese anthem was about the emperor. He's a straight-A student, as far as that goes.

In the end, however painful the process proved to be, all the students were able to guess the anthems (many were aided greatly through the process of elimination). I then asked them to read over their anthems again and, as they did initially with the Japanese anthem, consider the tone of the songs, how they felt reading each, and think a bit about why these might have been chosen as a national anthem, in light of what they might know about the country in question.

Each group then shared their opinions and thoughts about their assigned anthems. It became an interesting way to explore and fill gaps in their knowledge about the outside world (rather than simply ridicule or lament them, as I am wont to do). One group read the Palestinian anthem (an angry refusal to surrender a homeland) while another read the Israeli anthem (a paean of joy and relief at homecoming), which segued easily into a discussion of the seemingly intractable nature of the conflict. Several students remarked on the violence of some anthems, while others noticed the absence of such in others; typically this aligned quite well with the policy of the country in question. The last pair brought up the parts of the Filipino anthem - which took its current form after WWII - about resisting invaders, at which point I couldn't help but ask the students who that line might refer to. Many were shocked to consider that most Filipinos singing the anthem would be thinking about Japan when they come to that line.

This last bit lead nicely back to my final point. I directed their attention once more to the definition of anthem written on the board: "a patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity." As I explained, the lyrics of national anthems are often inspired by specific points in a country's history - take the US anthem, which Francis Scott Key wrote after watching the bombardment of Ft. Henry by the British during the War of 1812. Sometimes, like in the case of the Japanese anthem, they are adopted from poetry or existing folk-songs. In that sense, anthems arise somewhat spontaneously as expressions of national feeling. However, they do not become the official national anthem spontaneously; it is a deliberate decision by the country's government. As the definition says, they are adopted as an "expression of national identity," and so their adoption can be viewed as one way of establishing or even creating an identity.

That day I left the students with two questions: "Does "Kimi ga yo" express your national identity?" and " What does it mean that it was chosen to do so?"

(Later, many replied on the English club blog with their reactions to that day's lesson. Some can be seen here, here, and here.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Art and Cheese steaks

One of the teachers I worked with at Hamamatsu Minami paints in his free time. It often seemed like several of the teachers had quite interesting personal lives that they never revealed to students - or even other teachers; this teacher a painter, another a jazz guitarist, another the head of the Japanese fan club for a Korean actor (admittedly, I find that one less cool than amusing. Incidentally, these teachers that have something outside of work that gives their lives meaning seem to be both better teachers as well as more agreeable people in general). I only found out about this teacher's painting after asking him specifically about what he had done one weekend, and he admitted it only furtively. Later he told me he paints regularly and has exhibitions in the city, and his wife is artistic as well: a published poet!

A couple weeks ago I received an invitation in the mail for an exhibition by his collective put on by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art, so I went to check it out. As it turns out, one of his three paintings won an award in the exhibition. I walked through and found all three, which were titled Expectation 1, 2, and 3, respectively. Frankly, I was shocked. The paintings are of a series that seem to be following the pregnancy of his wife (hence, "Expectation"), who had just recently given birth to a baby girl, their first child. This teacher is an unfailingly genial guy, and it often seems like there's a goofy kid stuck in that 40-year-old frame, and to be honest, I wasn't expecting such a naked (pun not intended) display of emotional depth. The light and color change across the series as the child in the woman grows, while images of chromosomes and a fetus are arranged in a sort of cosmic backdrop (Expectation 2 is the above picture, and Expectation can be seen here). I left the exhibit pleasantly surprised to see a new side of a friend, and with a renewed appreciation for how little others may reveal to us about their inner lives. (You can see a selection of his paintings here, at his personal site)

And as I left the exhibition, I noticed the showing in the main gallery: Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art! This was surreal, since I had seen all these paintings about five years previously with my aunt, uncle, and cousin while visiting them in Philadelphia. To stumble upon them again in the middle of Tokyo was a treat.

And speaking of treats, this is what I found on my way outside the gates of the museum: Philly cheese steaks! A small van was parked right outside the entrance to the exhibit grilling up steaks for any takers, sponsored by the museum and thus, for all intents and purposes, an extension of the actual exhibit. A large poster alongside relayed the story of the steak for inquisitive Japanese minds: apparently it was developed by an Italian guy who sold hot dogs to taxi drivers in the 1930's. One day he tried thinly sliced meat along with grilled onions and cheese in a sandwich and the Philly Cheese Steak was born.

The last part of this surprisingly long and involved message on steaks - much longer and more prominent than the placards you might find regarding paintings in the museum - contains this final plea: "We sell these steaks to match the exhibit from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exquisite flavor combination of steak and cheese will call forth the spirit of Philadelphia to you, so please enjoy one in remembrance of your appreciation for the art here today."

Apparently, you can't really appreciate art from Philadelphia without a giant Philly sandwich jammed down your gullet. And that's not just my opinion, that's coming right from the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Enola Gay

Recently, an obituary was published in the New York Times for Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the commander and pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Naturally, this provoked another discussion of the morality of dropping the atomic bomb itself. Two extreme examples and a more moderate opinion can be summarized in the story in the link below:

After reading this, I decided to write a reply, which I'll reproduce here:

Many people like to argue that if Eisenhower himself thought the dropping of the nuclear bombs was unnecessary, dropping them couldn't have been necessary. He has, after all, been quoted as saying the war would have ended shortly afterwards, even without the nuclear bombs. However, he based this on the assumption that conventional bombing - i.e., the continued firebombing of Tokyo and other major cities - would continue. The firebombing of Tokyo had claimed more lives - perhaps a 100,000 people in one night - than any individual atomic bombing, and continued firebombing (of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe) would have no doubt killed more Japanese civilians than the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Incidentally, firebombing - the indiscriminate bombing of civilians as a part of a campaign of “total war” - has also been considered a kind of war crime).

Eisenhower wasn’t naive enough to believe that the Japanese government, which had manifestly no interest in protecting the lives of individual citizens (since it considered them only important in their capacity to devote themselves to the Imperial house), could be expected to surrender based on the rational assessment that they could never win the war. The most reasonable politicians in Japan were able to make the assessment that they could never fully defeat the US before the war had even begun, and were simply hoping that the initial attack and advance of Japanese troops would succeed in just leading to a kind of truce wherein Japan would have free reign in Asia. But the militarists and the Emperor had beliefs about the strength of Japan and its inevitable victory unconstrained by any sort of rationality, and they were the ones to make the final decision about surrender. They believed that the Japanese would triumph based on superior spirit alone. And the only thing that made them reconsider surrender was the atomic bomb, since it was a weapon no amount of spirit could conquer.

There’s no doubt that many people in Japan, citizens and some politicians alike, wanted the war to end. Ascribing the spirit of “bushido” to all the people in Japan is a bit ridiculous, and I wouldn’t argue that all the millions of citizens would really have voluntarily gone out with their sticks pointed at our soldiers. Unfortunately, they were not in any sort of position to influence the government, barring some sort of revolution - which would require the kind of popular uprising and resistance against the government unthinkable then (and now, really) in Japan. Those ordinary people would likely have been compelled to fight - as were the citizens in Okinawa - or if unwilling, to commit suicide, by the true believers. And some people, kids who had been sufficiently propagandized, for example, would have done it willingly (this I know directly from my friend, who was a teenager at the time, and though now an incredibly genial and bright old man who went to the best engineering university in Japan, confessed he was convinced his duty at the time was to fight Americans to the last with a spear).

For me, living in Japan for the last few years, this has been a common topic. I’ve visited Hiroshima and wept at the pictures and exhibits in the Atomic Bomb Museum. As a high school teacher, it was impossible to look at the tattered remains of a schoolgirl’s uniform or a boy’s lunch box and not immediately connect this massive killing with the kids I knew and saw everyday. It’s much more difficult to try to justify the death of one person in that situation - not to mention thousands. But I feel like the decision to bomb Japan is a decision very difficult to take outside of the context of the world at that time. At the time, the US was convinced that Japan would simply refuse to surrender without a ground invasion. Plans were drawn up for the invasion, and hundreds of thousands on both sides expected to die. Our knowledge of Japan came from the words of the Japanese government, which promised a “hundred million bamboo spears” awaiting us. Having seen the kamikaze and the defense of Iwojima, we could believe them. Inside the country itself, the military and the Emperor were intent on continuing the war. The military wanted to fight until the end. The Emperor, though recognizing the impossibility of absolute victory, had rejected demands for surrender, as he was determined to wrest a promise from the Allies of protected sovereignty. Obviously, this was not something the Allies were willing to offer (would we have offered to allow Hitler to remain in power?). There may have been widespread discontent in the citizenry and in parts of the government, but not any from the people who actually would determine the country’s policy.

The decision was therefore made to drop the bombs. The bombs were dropped, the rational Japanese were able to convince the militarists to give up (though, as noted above, some still attempted to stage an uprising and take control of the Imperial palace), and the war came to an end. The bombs were a terrible thing to do to another country, but in a terrible time, a justifiable decision. With the belief that hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died, it was justifiable. It could also be justified to argue that millions of Japanese would have died. To argue that the atomic bombing may not have been necessary because the Soviet Union would enter Japan, or that conventional bombing would have eventually forced them to give up, or that unseen political turmoil in Japan would have rendered the bombing unnecessary, is analysis after the fact, and not information available at the time. To appeal to the rationality of Japan is to apply the current situation of modern democratic Japan or a peaceful world to a time and place that was neither democratic nor peaceful. People in Japan often seem to talk about the atomic bombings as though they just appeared out of nowhere, rather than as the final part of a long world war, for which Japan bore a large responsibility. That’s not to say that Pearl Harbor justified doing anything we wanted, but that the bombing should not be taken out of the context of the greater war. Terrible decisions had to be made in terrible times.

For me, it’s much more instructive to think about how the war started, and how it became so easy for us to kill each other. Neither side had a clear sense of the other as a similar human being before the war, and this was only further bolstered by the wartime propaganda necessary to make killing easier. Belief in Japan in the innate racial purity and superiority of Japanese made it possible to do terrible and insane things, and contributed to the refusal to acknowledge defeat. The breakdown of democracy as it existed in Taisho period Japan and the investment of all national power in the military and the Emperor was something that could not have happened without the involvement, or at least, inaction of the Japanese populace. Could Japan have attacked so easily if it were a true democracy at the time? Could we have so easily firebombed Tokyo and Dresden if we hadn’t vilified the people of both countries? Why are we able to be so cavalier about the deaths of thousands of people from bombing? These are the types of questions that are extraordinarily relevant, and we’re likely to learn a lot more and prevent similar tragedies in the future by thinking about why it all happened then second-guessing the past.