Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Student life at Hamanan

Recently I set up a blog for the students in the English club at my school. I wish I could say it's off to a rousing start, but that would a little too generous...anyways, it is certainly off to a start of some kind. Perhaps a bemusing one?

Hamanan English Club blog

The students were asked to write short self-introductions, which prompted stories about car accidents, "soft-ball tennis," BAGELs, and PSP; not ordinary topics during first conversations.

Anyways, I'm going to try to get them to write a little something every week. I'm hoping it will, aside from allowing them a measure of self-expression not allowed, let alone encouraged, in their other classes, let others see the general lives of students here. Whether that will be interesting or depressing remains to be seen. Feel free to check it from time to time.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Yellow Menace

A couple weekends ago I had another class at the local community center with the older Japanese. Typically, I give them a few topics to cover in a free conversation in groups while I walk around and monitor them, answering questions or trying to keep the talk flowing. For the second half of the class, we have some sort of structured activity: the introduction of new grammar or vocabulary, a game, etc.

I decided that day we'd have a debate, which we've done a few times before. Though their English levels vary considerably from near-fluent to near-mute, since they're all adults, they generally have something to say which makes a debate of some sort possible for everyone. I broke them up into groups again and gave them a couple topics.

One of the big news stories recently has been the Imperial Succession. In short, the Crown Prince and his wife had been unable to produce a male heir to inherit the throne, putting the succession in doubt. They do, however, have a daughter, so some people argued for a changing of the law of succession to permit the daughter to become Empress. This was the subject of some controversy because, though Empresses are not unknown in Japanese history, the actual male line - they say - has never been broken for some 1500 years. This debate was just settled recently however, when the Crown Prince's younger brother and his wife appeared with a son of their own, ensuring the safety of the succession.

As an American, I am kind of mystified and bemused at the idea of a monarch, and it seemed to me that most of the younger Japanese people I know are pretty apathetic about the whole issue, but I was curious what the older generation might think. After all, most of them lived when an Emperor still had power and apparently the institution still has meaning for them; it's always grandmas out in the crowd waving at the Emperor when he holds forth.

So for one of the topics, I asked them to talk about whether "Women should be allowed to become Emperor." I predicted an interesting talk about whether modern equality should trump traditions. I was very surprised however, as the debate they actually had quickly evolved into one over whether the Imperial system should continue at all - and most everyone said "No."

As it turns out, the Emperor currently receives a yearly stipend of several million dollars from the government. This, despite the fact that his role is entirely ornamental, and he is of course already quite wealthy due to extensive property holdings. Several women in the class were quite vehement in their displeasure of paying through taxes the salary of a man who "doesn't do anything" and yet lives in a huge complex completely isolated from the public. Others went even further, saying that the Imperial system itself is ridiculous and should be dismantled. The only dissenting opinion was the one man there that day, who said that the Emperor should be retained as a symbol of Japan. The women all disagreed though, saying they felt no connection for the Emperor, even as a symbol.

After the Japanese surrender, there was a debate among the American occupation forces about the future of the Imperial system. In the end, MacArthur and the Americans decided to keep the institution, albeit stripping it of its powers. MacArthur also refused calls to try the monarch for any responsibility in the war. He believed that any attempt to remove the Emperor would cause upheavals in Japan. Why? Because he, along with other Japan "experts", thought the people here were fundamentally incapable of thinking for themselves, and they could not have democracy here without the imperial system. They bought into the propaganda of the wartime government of Japan of the people as blindly obedient to the Emperor, and also believed in the myth of all the yellow people in general as ant-like followers.

In the end, it seems this was another example of taking the public front of a government for the feelings of all its citizens. The government talks about the respect and love people had for the Emperor, and I simply assumed that they believed exactly what the government said. I found that I still harbored some of the same patronizing views of people here as Americans did in the past.