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.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

My farewell speech

I moved to Tokyo last month and still haven't gotten Internet service at my apartment set up yet, so updating the blog has been impossible. Right now, I'm just stealing access from the Apple store in Shibuya, so I don't really have the time to write anything, but I thought I'd post a copy of the farewell speech I gave in Japanese on my last day at school. The Japanese is followed by my English translation section by section, but the translation may read strangely in some places because the speech itself was written in Japanese (that is, not written by me in English then translated into Japanese, but from the beginning conceived in and written in Japanese). I promise it's a much better speech in the original. Later, once I have my Internet set up, I'll write more about the reception my speech received and the whole experience of leaving the school. Anyways, here it is:

皆さんは、「アメリカ人」と言う言葉を聞くと、どんなことを考えますか。無意識に、どんな言葉が出てきますか。 背が高い?白人?目が青い?個性が強い?思いやりがない?
When you hear the word “American”, what do you think of? What kinds of words come to mind unconsciously? Tall? White? Blue-eyed? Strong individuality? Lacking consideration for others?

When Americans hear the word “Japanese”, what do you suppose they think of? What kinds of words do you think come to mind for them reflexively? Short? Weak individuality? Considerate?

When you were asked this question, you thought about the differences between yourselves and Americans, right? This is because the words “American” and “Japanese” carry within them the image of the other group as different. There are likely those that don’t find this too important a point, but from these images of another group as different, there emerges the possibility of coming to think of the other group as a different kind of human beings. And with that, there is the danger of forgetting the humanity of the other group entirely.

毎日南校に行っていた私は、最初から毎日 一日中生徒とふれあってきました。しかし、学校に来たばかりの時に、皆さんはただ「Hello!」と言ってから、笑いながら向こうに走って行きました。 授業中に、私がいる生徒たちにじろじろ見られることが多かったです。ある時に、私は一人の生徒に英語の言葉の説明していた間に、その生徒は私が言っていたのを聞く代わりに、 あっけに取られたような表情で、その子は自分の子犬のように腕をなでて、「すごい。。。ゴールド!」と 言いました。
Coming to school every day, from the beginning I was interacting with you students all day. However, when I first started at school, everyone would just yelp, “Hello!” at me and then run off in the other direction, giggling. In class, you guys often just stared at me. One time, while I was explaining the meaning of an English word to a student, rather than listen to what I was saying, she got this wide-eyed look to her and started petting my arm like I was her dog. “Wow…” she gasped, “It’s gold…”

また別の日に、私はその日の活動を説明してから、その前にずっと私が言っていたことに集中したような生徒に「Do you understand?」と聞いてみて、その子は「アダムス先生の目がちょう〜青いね」と答えました。たしかに、よくほめてくれましたが、私が言っていることよりも、皆さんは私の腕の毛や目の色の方に興味があったようでした。あの二学期にはじめて挨拶として「でっかい!」と言われた経験もありました。あの時、私は生徒たちから見ると、人間じゃなくて、かわいくて、エキゾチックなパンダとして見られていたと思いました。
Another day, after I had explained the activity we’d be doing in class that day, I tried asking a student in front of the class, “Do you understand?” since she looked like she had been totally focused on what I was saying before. She answered, in a dreamy voice, “Adamusu-Sensei no me ga cho aoi ne…” or, in English, “Mr. Adams, your eyes are so blue…” Certainly, it was nice to be complimented so often, but it seemed like everyone was far more interested in my arm hair or eye color than in anything I might be saying. That term was also the first time I’ve ever had “Dekkai!” (“huge!”) used towards me as a greeting. At that time, I think from the students’ perspective, I wasn’t a human being so much as a cute and exotic panda.

でもだんだん見慣れてくると、普通に対話できるようになりました。朝皆さんが「Good morning Mr. Adams!」と言って、「Good morning!」と私が答えました。昼休みにしゃべったり、冗談を言って笑ったり、一緒にバスケットボールやテニスをしたりしていました。学校が終ったら、家庭教師として英会話を教えて、英語部の担当者として英語部の子たちと特に仲よくなりました。パンダから人間に変身したようです。
But gradually everyone got used to seeing me, and we became able to have normal conversations. In the morning, you all now said, “Good morning Mr. Adams!” and I answered, “Good morning!” We chatted during lunch break, told jokes and laughed, and even played tennis and basketball together. When school ended, I tutored kids in English conversation, and, as supervisor of the English club, became particularly close to club members. It seems I had transformed from a panda into a human being.
ほんの65年前には、私と生徒のような若者は敵でお互い殺し合いをしていました。去年広島を訪ねた時に、どうやって人間がこんなにひどいことができたかと思いましたが、あの時に、アメリカ人が「日本人」を聞くと、神風、腹切り、ナンキン、1億の竹槍などを考えていたでしょう。あるいは、あの時の日本人が「アメリカ人」を聞くと、鬼畜米英、などを考えていたでしょう。一般的なルールとして、他の人間を殺すことは無理なはずですが、双方とも相手が同じ人間だとは思っていませんでした。だからこそ、人間を殺すことができるようになっていたのです。 人間性を失っていたということです。
Only 65 years ago, young people you and I would have been enemies in a war trying to kill each other. When I visited Hiroshima last year, I thought about this and wondered how it was that we were able to do such horrible things to other human beings. I suppose when the Americans of that time heard the word “Japanese” they thought of words like kamikaze, hara kiri, the Rape of Nanking, or the “hundred million bamboo spears” reportedly waiting for us on the Japanese mainland in the hands of every single, fanatical Japanese person, all willing to fight to the death. Likewise, when the Japanese at that time heard the word “American” they probably thought of words like kichikubeiei, (“British and American Devils”). As a general rule, it’s impossible for us to kill another human being. But we didn’t consider each other human beings. As a result, it became possible to kill each other. This process is known as dehumanization.

もちろん、あの時は戦争のプロパガンダのせいでしたが、なぜ国民があのプロパガンダを信じていたかと聞くと、多分相手と会ったことがなくて、 相手の具体的なイメージがないと、相手がすごく曖昧なものになってしまったのでしょう。相手の人間性を忘れてしまったと思います。 今も私たちにとって 同じ理由によって、今アフリカのダルフルで苦しんでいる人はただの新聞に出る記事にすぎない存在ですよね。あの人たちの具体的なイメージを持っていない私たちから見ると、あんな人たちはただの言葉の世界の存在で、あの人たちの死は数字としたしか考えられません。
Of course, at that time it was the result of wartime propaganda, but why were we all so susceptible to propaganda? It’s likely we’d never met anyone from the other group, and, unable to form a concrete image of the other, they became a very amorphous thing. And we forgot their humanity. In our lives today we can see the same attitude manifesting itself for the same reasons with the suffering of people in places like Darfur in Africa, a people who exist for most of us purely as articles that appear in newspapers from time to time. Lacking any concrete image of them, they exist only in the world of words for us, and their deaths are just numbers.

It’s for this reason that I think the JET Program is such a great thing. Obviously, it’s important for helping students study English for their entrance exams, but I think the more vital goal is allowing us to understand one another’s humanity. Because from now on, when you all hear the word “American,” you’ll think, “Oh, Adams-Sensei!” Because you have a concrete image of me in your mind, you won’t lose sight of the humanity behind the word “American.” And I hope this isn’t just for Americans, but that you adopt this attitude towards all of the foreigners you meet in the future. Internationalization and human understanding towards the Other will move forward like this, step by step. I think all of us here today – students and teachers – are walking on this path forward together.

To the third year students preparing for exams, when you hear me talk about “a path forward,” it probably makes you think about going on to university, right? Well, I have one thing to say about that too.

「私は早稲田で勉強した」と言ったら、「すごい!」とよく言われました。皆さんにも言われました。一方で、アメリカでも、”I went to UCLA”と言ったら、”Wow!”とよく言われました。たしかに、両方はエリートな大学です。たとえば、UCLAでノーベウル賞受賞者の教授がたくさんがいたので、ものすごく面白い授業があります。そして、素晴らしいUCLAの図書館でどんな本でもあります。それに、一緒に勉強している仲間は多様で、やる気がある人ばかりです。しかし、私から見ると、早稲田やUCLAのようなイリートな大学に入れるのはそんなに偉いことではない。もちろん、入学試験を合格するのは難しいですが、入れることよりも、入ってから何をするか、何を習うか、何をできるようになるか、ということの方が大事だと思うからです。UCLAのようないい大学に入ったら、偉いことができるようになる可能性があるかもしれませんが、機会を利用しないと意味がないと思います。
When I tell people I studied at Waseda University, people often say to me, “Sugoi!” (Amazing!) Many of you also said the same. Similarly, when I tell people in the US that I went to UCLA, they too often say to me, “Wow!” Certainly, both are elite universities. At UCLA, there are many great professors – several even are Nobel Laureates – so there are very interesting classes. And, you can find any book you’d ever want to read in the fantastic UCLA libraries. Your peers at the school are very diverse and motivated students all. However, from my perspective, getting into elite schools like Waseda or UCLA isn’t so impressive. Of course, it’s difficult to gain acceptance to the schools, but I think it’s much more important what you do after you get in. What do you study? What do you become able to do? If you get into a good school like UCLA, you may have the potential to do great things, but if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity, just getting into the school is meaningless.

I think most of you here today are motivated, intelligent, and hardworking students. I’m sure you’re often told similar things by your teachers and parents. It’s likely many of you will go on to study at good universities. However, to me, passing the university examinations is nothing but a kind of parlor trick. It’s simply a performance showing off your basic intelligence and drive. What can you really comprehend about a person just from knowing they passed a university examination? When someone enters Tokyo University, do they immediately transform into a great person? In the end, does it really mean anything?

I think to be called, “sugoi” you must actually accomplish something. Because I don’t feel like I’ve done anything amazing, when people say this to me I become rather embarrassed. I think you all should also feel embarrassed if someone says “sugoi” to you.

I think whether you’re really sugoi or not should be something based on your growth as a person or how you’ve progressed as an individual. Therefore, don’t take passing the examinations as your goal. Passing just gives you a chance. Passing is just the first step towards your future.

来月から、私は東京で翻訳家として働きます。日本語がもっとぺらぺらになりたいので、仕事は勉強になるといいなと思って、この仕事を決めました。その後に、私の夢は外交官になることです。外交官になれたら、将来に皆にすごいと言われることをやってみたいですが、今は一歩一歩、 謙虚で頑張ります。皆さんも高校で、大学で、勉強してください。手に入るチャンスを利用してください。 本当にすごいと人から思われる将来を目指して、 一歩一歩、頑張っていってください。そして、そのあなたがたのすごい将来にまた会いたいと思います。
From next month, I’ll be working in Tokyo as a translator. I chose the job because I wanted to become more fluent in Japanese and I figured I could study while I worked. After that, my dream is to become a diplomat. If I can become a diplomat, I would like to try to do things in the future worth of being called sugoi, but in the meantime, I’m trying to do my best with humility, step by step. All of you, please keep studying at high school and college. Take advantage of the chances you are given. Aim at a future in which you could be thought of as sugoi, and do your best, step by step. I hope I can meet you again in that sugoi future we have made.

Thank you very much.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel

The Japanese national anthem is called "Kimigayo," or "Imperial Reign." Click here to listen to it.

Now, what jumps out at you first has to be the brevity; the song is mercifully short. And there are none of the hystrionics of the US anthem, what with "bursting in air" or "land of the free" being dragged out to a minute each of awful caterwauling. No, this song takes less than a minute. The tune itself is actually rather stirring, and, dare I say it, Japanesey.

The lyrics, on the other hand, are a bit different. Taken from an anonymous poem from the Kokinshu, a poetry anthology from the early 10th century, they run as follows:

Kimi ga yo wa
Chiyo ni
Yachiyo ni
Sazare ishi no
Iwao to narite
Koke no musu made

May your Imperial reign
Continue for a thousand years,
And last for eight thousand generations,
Until pebbles
Turn into boulders
Covered in moss.

So, the poem is a paean to the Emperor. And it's only about the Emperor; there's no mention of Japanese people, the Japanese government, or Japanese culture, which is a problem insofar as you consider those things maintaining an existence outside the Emperor, I suppose. It was chosen as the national anthem in the late 1800's, when Japan was in a desperate rush to catch up to the modernized Western nations. Interestingly, part of the reason for the choice of this poem was its resemblance to the English national anthem, "God Save the Queen"; it was an attempt to gain legitimacy as a nation by mimicking one of the major powers.

Of course, that was more than a 100 years ago, and the paths of the two sovereigns in question have been rather different:

During the war, the King and the future queen, lacking any real power, simply put their efforts into raising the spirits of a country under attack. Today, the Queen is just some rich old woman. If she's a symbol of anything, it's of the former glory of an Empire that no longer exists.

The Emperor - specifically, Hirohito - was the figure behind which the Japanese attempted to conquer much of Asia. His divine status is what gave Japanese soldiers the right to rape the inferior people of Korea and China. Eternal allegiance to him was the rallying cry of men leading suicide charges or flying their planes into ships. His refusal to surrender prolonged the war and allowed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens to die needlessly. Basically, he bears a large burden of responsibility for a war that devasted every part of Japanese society - a responsibility that neither he nor the government ever acknowledged. He remains a potent symbol, both inside and outside Japan, of that past.

Clearly, there is a difference now in singing a song of praise for the Emperor.

But this is their anthem. It's sung at ball games and at the Olympics. It's sung at every school function. In fact, it's not just sung, it's often required to be sung at school functions. Interestingly enough, the national anthem - along with the hinomaru flag - was not officially granted that status until set down in a law in 1999; a response to a case in which a principal, sandwiched between the protests of teachers who refused to sing the anthem at a graduation ceremony and the demands from the Ministry of Education to force them to comply, ultimately committed suicide. Teachers in Tokyo that refuse to stand to sing the song due to its association with the Emperor and Japan's militarism - history teachers, I would hope - have actually lost their jobs on this account. Apparently, since 2003, 401 teachers have been punished for refusing to take part in anthem-related events. Recently, the Tokyo District Court ordered the Tokyo Board of Education to pay damages for any teachers reprimanded for their refusal to sing the anthem, but the Board maintains that, schools being governmental agencies, teachers have a responsibility to teach their students how to be good citizens.

Which raises the question, is loyalty to the Emperor what constitutes a good citizen?

Next time: what Japanese people think - or don't - when singing the anthem.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Irrational Women

While walking around helping students today in my third year writing class, a boy grabbed my arm and asked me to explain a sentence from a reading sample in his textbook. I stopped, leaned in and took a look at the sentence he was pointing at:

"It is a mistake for him to use cold reasoning to overcome anything which he cannot understand in his wife."

I did a double-take, and went back and read the entire passage. Then I laughed quite hard, and the boy ended up learning a new word: sexism.

Take a look at the essay the kids in this 3rd year writing class - along with all the other 400 students in their grade, not to mention how many other schools who happen to use the same text - are reading. It's reprinted in the book after appearing on an entrance exam for Tohoku University; there's no further information to know to whom to give credit for these pearls of wisdom. To me, it sounds like something they took out of an issue of Good Housekeeping from the 50's, or some chapter on marriage from a very old life-education textbook, but it could very well have been invented out of whole cloth. What's perhaps even more amusing than the students at my school and others studying this passage, is that since it appeared on an entrance exam, past students were actually tested on this; every applicant to Tohoku that year would have had to read and answer questions on this in order to pass the exam. To take that concept a little farther: current students of Tohoku University have all certified their comprehension and assimilation of the ideas contained in this passage by very virtue of being students at the university.

And people in the US complain about biases in SAT questions!

Anyhow, it's good to see that students studying English here are being given entirely new ways to see the world (and women's proper place in it), and being equipped with the language abilities necessary to really succeed in the future (at putting women in that place).

Sunday, May 27, 2007


A question I often get - as "often" as I get questions about the blog - is whether anyone at my school reads the blog; I guess readers wonder whether I'm worried about anyone getting upset, considering the amount of detail and commentary I provide on students and teachers. Typically, I laugh this off, because even if they found the site, I can't imagine this ever being an issue. I'd be incredibly surprised if anyone at the school - student or teacher - has the English ability or general wherewithal to actually read anything I write. After all, very few native speakers have the stamina to get through a whole bloated post in one sitting.

But, it turns out that at least one student has read the blog. You might remember KMK, a much-doted on student of mine from the English club. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned him several times before.

I had mentioned this fact to him as well, that I was writing a blog on which he had appeared. The thing is though, now that my students are also writing a blog that I also belong to, it only takes one click on my name on the student blog for them to find my site. So, KMK came up to me last club meeting to tell me he had been reading the blog. Specifically one part. With his girlfriend. He was a bit shocked.

He was showing the English club blog to his girlfriend one day, and I guess they clicked right through to my blog. And they started reading this post about the school festival last year. I talk about the time Matt came to visit the school during the festival, and KMK gave the two of us a tour. It's this description in particular of part of the tour that caught their interest:

Here is KMK and his harem. KMK actually has a girlfriend in the second year, but since I don't think she's good enough for him, Matt and I kept needling him about going after this first year girl on the right. As the girls here were in the cooking club, Matt played up that angle, while I convinced KMK that this girl had an elegant, rare "old Japan"- type of beauty. He went red and gesticulated in an even wilder fashion - if that can be believed.

Needless to say, KMK's girlfriend was not happy to hear this story, despite it being almost a year old, and he caught some flak for something I wrote. He didn't seem particularly bothered by it, just kind of exasperated. I was, of course, amused, and not at all repentant. I told him I still held to what I had said and written last year, and I explained the American high school custom I'll call "going down a grade to trade up a grade": boys dating younger, prettier girls of the type that might be unattainable to them in their own grade. I told him it's his senior year, and time to start taking advantage of that while he still can. Maybe he'll listen to me before he heads off to college and has to start at the bottom of the totem pole again.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Good Children = Good Drinkers

I took this picture the other day at Toys 'R' Us, or, as it's pronounced here, toizarasu. They were selling it at the checkout counter. It's a beer for kids.

I had read about this before, but had kind of taken it as one of those stories - typically, the only type of story ever written by foreign papers about Japan - on some bizarre trend now sweeping the country. I really think the media has special correspondents assigned specifically to find and report on any quirky things popping up here. It goes like this: some fad has reportedly caught on in Tokyo and is speading far and wide across the land- except, no Japanese person I know has ever even heard of the fad in question (two examples I can think of offhand are the "Japanese bathing suits" and "Tokyo oxygen bar" stories). Regardless, we are all thankful for the opportunity to stop and have a cheap laugh at the silly people across the sea. Imagine the kind of insane articles we could write about the US if we applied these kinds of ridiculous journalistic standard to ourselves.

So, when I first read about this - a beer made for and marketed to children - I took it with a grain of salt, but I stand corrected. Because they really are selling a beer made especially for children (or, at least, it's for sale; it didn't seem to be flying off the shelves). In a toy store, no less.

It's called Yoiko no Biiru, or "Good Children's Beer." At the top in red is, presumably, the slogan: "Good Children's Beer: The Beer that Good Children Drink." It is also described (in yellow) as, "A beer-like fermented beverage." Sounds tasty, huh?

Anyhow, the toddler pictured on the label certainly seems to be enjoying his frothy cold one. He's emitting a contented sigh; looking forward to knocking one back at the end of a long day of crawling around and putting things in his mouth.

Parents in this hyper-competitive society are always trying to give their children a head start. Even when it comes to alcoholism, I suppose. A big part of job success here is drinking after work with your superiors, so it's never too early to get a leg up on your (future) co-workers.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Graduation Ceremonies as Cultural Rosetta Stones

The first Thursday of March was the graduation ceremony for the third year students at my school (The school year here starts in April and ends in March, with finals being held a few days before the ceremony. Strangely, school itself continues for a couple more weeks, though grades are already due, meaning students and teachers keep to coming classes even though we really can't introduce any new material).

Though the various formal ceremonies in the Japanese school system that I am required to attend are invariably tedious, they do offer me opportunities to see the core of the school experience here. High school graduation being the most important ceremony commemorating the most important event of that school experience, the ceremony is a crystallization of the motive and method of that schooling. I'll give you a summary of aspects of the ceremony, then I'll attempt a bit of interpretation for each.

The graduation is held in the gym. The front chairs are arrayed for graduating students; behind the students is a gallery for parents; behind that is one for current second years. The parent gallery is filled - with the exception of perhaps four members, to be generous - exclusively with mothers. To the sides of the stage are two sections: the one on the right of the stage from the audience's perspective is for teachers, with members further divided into camps of senior administrators, third year teachers, and remaining teachers. There is also a microphone set up for announcements behind a small podium, with one teacher who serves as Master of Ceremonies sitting at a folding chair behind it. On the left of the stage are visiting VIP's; PTA Presidents, Superintendents, retired teachers or administrators. Behind all the audience, in the second-floor rafters, is the school band.

In the center of the stage is a podium, behind which are the national and prefectural flags, to the right of which is the school emblem. Slightly off to the right and above the stage is a plaque that gives the order of events for the assembly.

It reads:
1. Opening address
2. Singing of the National Anthem
3. Awarding of Diplomas
4. Address from the principal
5. Address from visiting VIP
6. Farewell address
7. Sending off address
8. Singing of the school song
9. Closing address

The most glaring difference to me was of course the absence of fathers at the ceremony. I remarked on this to another teacher, and she informed me that each student is allotted only one seat for a visitor, explaining that the gym wasn’t large enough to hold more than that. This sounded reasonable, except that the gym apparently was large enough to accommodate the entire class of second-year students. So, apparently it’s more important that the second-year students attend the ceremony than the parents of the students actually graduating.

Along with other teachers who have put off entering until the last possible second, I enter the gym and take a seat near the front in order to easily take pictures. Teachers chat in muffled tones. Everyone is wearing a suit, even the P.E. teachers. (As an aside, a P.E. teacher in a suit is like a 10 year old in a suit: uncomfortable and adorable.)

Muted, indistinct classical music is piped in through the sound system as the third years enter the gym, walking in lines down a pathway of sorts, and sit down in rows, arranged by homeroom class. They are wearing the same school uniforms they wear every day, except with small red flowers - I'd guess carnations, but then again the only flowers I can identify for certain are roses and perhaps sunflowers - in the right front pocket of their jackets. They look bored, and the ceremony hasn't even properly begun.

The principal enters the gym, wearing a special jacket with long tails only used for the entrance and graduation ceremonies. He walks down the pathway to his seat at the aforementioned administrator’s area, sitting to the right of the two vice-principals. After he sits down, the MC stands up, walks to the podium at the side of the stage, and announces that the graduation ceremony will now commence. He then barks out, "kiritsu!"

-Now, this is a common part of all the ceremonies at school, these orders. It was something that jumped out at me the first time I attended a function, but now it seems entirely natural. The audience is told when to stand, when to sit, and when to bow through tersely worded yelps from the MC of kiritsu, rei, and chakuseki: "stand," "bow," and "sit," respectively. It's rather strange taking orders from another person like this at first - rather martial, really - but ultimately necessary to make sure everyone is on the same page as far as ceremony goes. Though it might seem like this would be rather obvious - stand for the national anthem, sit for speeches, clap at the end, etc. - as will become clear, the process here is so involved it would be chaos otherwise-



and we all stand. "Now, the singing of the national anthem," he announces. The band in the rafters behind us starts in on the mournful dirge of the song, and the teachers and students begin to sing. (I'm going to save my discussion of the anthem itself for another time, but suffice to say, it's both moving and troubling at the same time to experience) At the end of the song - which is mercifully short, as anthems go -


and we sit.

Then, the MC announces it's time for the awarding of diplomas, and the principal heads up onto the stage, bowing at the audience, then at the flag, taking his position behind the central podium. Now proceeds the most tedious section of the ceremony - the reading of the names of each student. The home room teacher of each class proceeds to the podium at the side of the stage and reads the name of each student in sequence. Nobody walks up to the stage; after his or her name is read, the student stands, yells, "Hai!" bows, and remains standing until all of his or her classmates have had their turn. Then that homeroom sits, and the next homeroom teacher approaches and it starts over again. 40 or so students to a class, 10 classes = lots of "Hai!" and bowing.

I try to amuse myself by thinking about the insane amount of overlap in names that occurs in a country without any sort of immigration. It's like having everyone in a graduating class be named Smith or Jones. There's remarkably little innovation as far as first names go either, because people seem to put all their ingenuity into thinking of different Chinese characters to use to write the first names of their kids rather than thinking of an original name. That topic only works for a bit as a diversion, so I start studying the individual bows of students. You can tell a lot about someone by how they bow: how deep, how long they hold the bow, what they do with their hands - all these things can reveal to an observer things about your personality and upbringing. Or at least, I imagine they reveal such things to me. This kills time.

It also keeps me awake. Many of the other teachers make it through this section by sneaking in a nap. Many of the students do as well, actually. Nestled down in their seats, they jump up as their names are called, managing to get out a muffled "Hai!"

Finally, all the names have been called, so the principal walks off the stage, bowing again, and takes his seat down at the side of the stage. Then, 10 seconds later, he stands right back up, walks back onto the stage, bows again, and takes the exact same position behind the podium. This is the part in the ceremony where I - without fail - laugh aloud and am scolded by whoever I happen to be sitting next to. Because this is the part where the observance of protocol just crosses the line into insanity.


The principal, now back up on the stage and, presumably, rested from his 10 second sojourn, begins to give a speech. This is amusing to me because he's just been transferred to this school in the last year and so is barely known by any of the students. Several, actually, had confessed to me that they don't even know his name. His speech is innocuous enough and passes without incident or interest from the students assembled.


But his speech is outdone in the capacity for arousing disintrest by the VIP speaker brought out next, as the district superintendent comes up on stage to give a rambling 10 minute address. He looks like he's never spoken to a group of students before, and he addresses them in patronizing, simplified terms, like they're graduating primary, not high school. I'm completely mystified by why the guy is even at the ceremony, let alone giving a speech to students. There are actually several other adminstrators present from other junior high and high schools, but they, fortunately, do not also give a speech. Like the principal before him, the superintendent mostly talks about how the students will and should never lose their identification with their school. He sweats a lot, but makes it through, eventually. Most of the students, however, did not make it through the first minute (They're asleep).


The principal stands up once more and again takes his place behind the podium onstage, and the MC announces now it's time for the Farewell Address from a representative of the student body. A girl stands up and walks up on stage to stand facing the principal across the podium. This is what you can see in that picture at the top of the page.

If you look at that picture, you'd probably suspect this was of the girl greeting the principal, or perhaps receiving something on behalf of the class from the principal. But this is in fact a picture taken midway through her speech.

Because, the girl giving the speech about her experience at high school is not giving the speech to her assembled classmates, but directly to the principal at the front of the stage. She talks about the good times and the bad she has had at school, her formative experiences and the times she'll never forget. Near the end, she breaks into tears several times and has to pause to regain her composure enough to go on. Students in the audience, and teachers as well, are similarly shook up by the speech, and the sounds of stifled weeping can be heard all over the gym. Never once during this entire speech does she turn around to face the crowd; the speech is directed solely at the impassive face of the principal. Never once do I see a betrayal of emotion on his face through my zoom lens. The girl goes back to her seat, and


as we bow at the Principal again, before he makes his way off the stage, and


we sit down too.

The sending off is a very quick speech by the


Vice Principal,


and an intro into the singing of the school song.


The band starts up on the song, which all the students and teachers know - except for me. I suppose I could learn the lyrics, but it's more fun to just go through it making noises that sound vaguely like the verses, waiting for the end where they just sing, "Hamamatsu Minami Koukou," (the name of the school) at which point I can join in heartily. Sometimes I whistle. The school song is longer than the national anthem, incidentally.

The song done, the Vice Principal stands up and walks over to the side podium to announce the end of the graduation ceremony. With one more...


...the ceremony is finished. The piped-in music begins anew and teachers stand by the door as the students file out in rows. I start trying to make a mental image of the ceremony to write about later.

So, this was an extremely long, perhaps tedious description of the event. But that's not to say just because the recounting of so many details was tedious to read that the details are of no importance:

First, just walking into the gym, you can see how everything has its place. Everyone knows where they are to be. And, with the giant sign announcing the order of ceremonies, everyone knows exactly what they will do. Obviously, a current running throughout is the intense attention to detail and procedure. This is most ridiculous in the way the principal dances from stage to the table off-stage between portions of the ceremony, of course, but though I laugh while watching, it makes perfect sense here. Things happen according to certain rules in certain ways and at certain times. Everyone knows this, so it all runs like one well-oiled machine. From the outside - to me - it may seem amusing, silly, or even a bit fascist, but the school is not built to produce people like me to live in the US; it's for Japanese kids to learn to navigate Japanese society.

In Japan, knowing your place is vital, as an awareness of relative status is necessary to even properly talk to another person; different verb conjugations and even verbs have to be used to those above or below oneself. There are rules for behavior in most any situation to follow, and social consequences for not following these rules. Once kids graduate school, they enter adult society, and they have to be ready for their new roles in the workplace. That means learning the right way to navigate the social landscape of the group as much as it does any actual job-skills (Interestingly enough, I've heard of Japanese companies making hiring decisions purely based on a candidate's grasp of honorific language, so in some cases this social adeptness might actually be held above actual work-related ability)

The most shocking part of the ceremony for me was watching the girl give the commencement speech facing the principal, rather than her peers and parents. The symbolism was just amazing. In the US, the girl would speak to her classmates. She would share and celebrate their time and accomplishments at school. But here, the girl was speaking to the principal, the school made manifest. By turning away from her classmates, she was showing that this ceremony was not about their lives and futures, but about their obligation to the school.

At the very end of their schooling, the graduate is produced, not as a supposed invididual who has accomplished much and is on the way to even greater things, but - just as the speeches of the principal and superintendent made clear - as someone who owes a debt to the school and though going on to another, larger group, must never forget their place here. The students are there to be reminded of their place in the line of those before and to come. The ceremony is not about the accomplishments of the students, because it's not really about the students at all; it's about the school.

And that's really it. The ceremony is not about the students, because the schooling is not about the individuals. The schooling is not about producing individuals because the goal is to create members of a group that will cohere into one. The ceremony is a celebration of the group, because that's what the society celebrates.

The thing is, watching one of these graduations, though the school and its ceremony seem to exalt in the group, the students themselves seem ambivalent if not apathetic. And this reveals some problems for this generation in Japan. Schools were set up to create factory workers to compete in a post-WWII market that no longer exists. Loyalty to a group - typically a company - in adult life was predicated on a promise of job security that is no longer being made. Kids see this, and the divide between what society promises and what it can deliver them, what the system is there to provide and what they actually want, seems to be growing. This graduation should be a stirring moment for them as a symbol of what's to come.

But most of them couldn't stay awake.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Those damn Brazilians

In Japan, candidates for political office are subject to all kinds of restrictions on campaigning: apparently forbidden from advertising on television or radio, and prohibited from campaigning of almost any kind up until the last couple weeks of the elections. They're left with two main options: plastering every open surface with posters with the candidates mug and name, and blasting every open frequency with propaganda speeches from huge megaphones mounted on trucks, screeching like terrible birds of prey, descending upon innocents in public spaces, mercilessly slaughtering peace of mind and quiet.

So I go to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee and read a book last week. I like to sit outside on nice days and read, taking breaks to people watch. Often I see people I know - usually students, typically in awe to see me living outside the school grounds - and though it's not terribly exciting, it's a way of getting out of the house and getting some reading done.

But, I'm only there for about 10 minutes when this truck parks down the street and starts blaring its political speech at an intolerable volume. Typically I can ignore background noise when I'm reading, but this not in the background; it's more like someone standing next to you with a bullhorn screaming in your ear.

So I pick up my coffee and book and head down to the other Starbucks. This being a modern city and all, that's only a couple blocks away. I get about 15 pages farther in my book when the speech begins again. I look up and see the same truck. It has now set up shop directly across the street from this Starbucks.

I don't even try to read through it this time; I snarl at the truck a bit, jump to my feet and immediately walk back to the other one, still with my original cup of coffee in hand. I sit down again - back at my original table - and open the book.

I'm still not halfway through my coffee when the truck comes back again, except this time even closer to the first Starbucks than before. Now, I get so angry I actually start listening to what kind of nonsense this guy is yelling into the megaphone. I want to know what is so damn important that they feel it's necessary to hound me all around town.

And then I really get angry.

Because this guy is talking about foreigner crime. Actually, what he's talking about is a case in which a Brazilian from Hamamatsu killed some girl and then ran back to Brazil. Apparently now the government refuses to extradite him. It sounds like a pretty tragic case.


This guy is not talking about this one case alone. He is not leading a crusade on behalf of this girl to bring her killer to justice. He is not even just talking about the problems with the law as it applies to Brazilians. No, he is sitting on the sidewalk talking about foreigner crime. Foreigners, as in all non-Japanese.

He talks about how, though most foreigners are good people, some of them are committing crimes, and then they escape back to their countries to avoid punishment. He exhorts the Japanese people to support a stronger stance on foreigner crime: both to increase penalties and also to educate the foreign population. He informs the Japanese in the area that many foreigners simply don't understand Japanese morals, and it's the job of the Japanese to teach them how to be good citizens.

I am steaming at this point.

In my head, I compose several counter-arguments:

1) Statistics on foreign crime in Japan, though often trotted out in elections to play into public fears of the Other (recently re-elected Tokyo Governor Ishirhara is a prime, prime offender), are rather misleading. Though overal crime rates are somewhat higher for foreign residents, there are mitigating factors. First, to compare "crimes" is misleading, as a majority of the "crimes" committed by foreigners in Japan are actually visa-related, and obviously none of these can be committed by any Japanese person. Second, though crime rates base use the number of legal foreign residents in Japan as the base population, they include crimes committed by any foreign person - even tourists or illegals - for the total amount of crimes committed. Basically, this underestimates the foreign population while overestimating the number of crimes they commit, leading to an artificially inflated number.

2) Why are the actions of one Brazilian used to indict the entire population of non-Japanese in Japan? As an American, invited here by the Japanese government, well-versed in Japanese culture and language, playing a valueable role in the community educating children, why should I be labeled a possible threat? To these very same children, no less. Recently, a young British woman in Japan as an English teacher was murdered by a Japanese man, but I'm quite sure that her parents aren't down on the street corner talking about the grave threat Japanese people pose to us all. An even more pertinent example would be the tragedy at Virgina Tech; only the lunatic fringe of our society use the actions of one disturbed kid to attack all Koreans, all Asians, or all foreigners. Hell, even those people are likely to at least be a little more specific in their racism!

3) For a guy purporting to want to teach Japanese morals, isn't it insanely rude to sit on a street corner and speak in Japanese about the problems with foreigners, addressing just the Japanese citizens as if no one else could understand what you're saying? It's treating all non-Japanese like children who don't need to be part of the conversation that all the grown-ups are having. And if you're going to make wild indictments of these groups, shouldn't you make your accusations directly, rather than in a way you assume they won't understand?

So I think about these things. I stand across from the guy and try to get him to meet my eyes. He does not. I think, if you're going to label me a killer, why don't you fucking look at me directly and say it?

I imagine committing several acts of violent foreigner crime.

But in the end, I walk away, because though all the above points and more would easily flow out with righteous indignation in English, the process of trying to say these things, to think these thoughts in Japanese just tires me, frustrates me. I can't speak out, and I can't stand up for myself. Yet.

I went home and studied Japanese. For next time.

Because I know there will be a next time.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Santa's Visit

I've been quite lax in my writing lately; not out of nothing to say so far as less time to do so. And, a seeming inability to write on a constant basis. I was home over Christmas and then, after returning to Japan, immediately went off to Cambodia. After coming back from Cambodia I went right back to work - literally, going directly from the airport to school to teach a class. Now I'm trying to interview for jobs in Tokyo so I can move there after my JET contract ends in August. Things have happened, certainly, but these Things get away from me as I put off jotting down stories for another day, which becomes another week, which has become now two months. So, as a stopgap, here is this:

It's speech time again at school. The speeches last semester (last year as well for that matter, though I can't hold this year's students responsible for the ineptitude of their predecessors) were so uniformly awful - in the sense of being awful by virtue of extreme uniformity - that this time kids were required to submit their draft to the teacher before the speech even got to me. The teacher was supposed to reject outright any speeches that were too boring or ordinary, forcing the students to come up with original ideas.

So, that worked, in a way. By and large, the speeches were much less about club activities or the need to study - the mainstays of last semester. And they were more original. One kid talked about how much he loves Rage Against the Machine - even rapping a few of the lines from "Bulls on Parade." (With a solemn expression, he recited, "Weapons not food not homes not shoes / Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal" and then simply announced, "I heard these words and knew they were very true.")

Sometimes their originality left me with some questions about their general mindset. For example, this girl's speech. It starts off with her saying she used to believe in Santa, and one time she saw him. "Oh, that's cute," I thought. I would ask that you click on the image and read how the speech develops from there.

First, this girl is 16. Not only does she still believe in Santa Clause, but she actually does believe that Santa came to her house to take a piss. I talked to her about it when she gave the speech. She insisted.
Second, in what kind of magical Christmas story does Santa take a piss in your house? I'm pretty sure there aren't any carols or claymation specials about Santa sneaking in and leaving that kind of present; even the Grinch stayed clear of that. Even surrounded by bright blue smoke, that's still not a sight to inspire wonder or the spirit of the holidays.
Third, if Santa did come to your house just to take a piss, would it really be something to be so happy about? Something that would fill you with longing and regret that he didn't return to soil your house again with his steaming, yuletide urine?
Fourth, isn't the whole idea of this kind of unsettling? It conjours up thoughts for me of vagrants wandering into her house, or perhaps an alcoholic father stumbling around in the dark.

Other times, the push for originality seemed to result in the students becoming more unhinged than usual. Asking a lot of these kids to write something individual on any topic they like is akin to suddenly releasing animals raised in captivity into the wild veldt; pushed out of the metaphorical cage of their completely structured educational system, shocked by their freedom of expression, freezing stock-still and unable to write at all, or racing off across the fields on some bizarre tangent of communication.

Like this guy. Sandwiched in between the opening and closing lines here is a completely normal speech. That opening line, however, is "I will cause a revolution next year." I read onward to learn of what this kid's plan might be, but to no avail. He just talks about studying and playing basketball. Then the revolution rears its head again. He admits that "causing a revolution is difficult for me" (and I think we've all been there before!) but assures with confidence, "but I will cause a revolution."

When I get speeches like this, I usually pepper them with question marks and send them back to the kid to explain. When it's something I want to hear though, I just leave it, wait for the kid to give the speech, and enjoy the show. They stand up in front of the class and say the most insane things with no comprehension of their meaning. A student declares "I will cause a revolution," but as I break into laughter, he only crinkles his brow slightly before going on, a bit befuddled by my reaction but otherwise unaffected. The rest of his classmates turn back as well to see me laughing, but just shake their heads at me in incomprehension, since they don't understand what the speaker is saying any more than he does.