Monday, June 28, 2004

Saturday Night Out
Alternative title: Conversations About the State of English Education in Japan
Another week, another Saturday night out in Oita city. I ended up driving in by myself, and then calling Greg once I arrived. He was in a Karaoke place close to “Jungle Park”. (Somewhat misnamed because it looks nothing like a Jungle, but the central park in the nightlife district of Oita city). After Greg gave me terrible directions, and I was unable to locate the Karaoke place, I ended up just meeting him and the rest of the gang in jungle park after they finished at Karaoke.

As we crossed the park, we saw four tall white guys standing around and looking confused. The foreign community in Oita prefecture is a fairly tight circle, and most of us are used to knowing most of the other foreigners in the area. Since no one our group seemed to know who these four people were, we speculated briefly among ourselves about who they might be and why they might be in Japan, and then just ended up introducing ourselves.

It turns out they were all from the Netherlands. One of them was a player in the local Oita soccer team. (Japanese professional soccer teams, being a relatively new phenomenon, tend to import a lot of European players). Another was the son of the coach for the same team. (Japanese professional soccer teams, being a relatively new phenomenon, tend to import a lot of European coaches). The son was on holiday visiting his father, and the other two were friends along for the trip.

“I’m Dutch too!” I said, introducing myself. The four of them regarded me skeptically. Greg, who was well aware of which country I possessed citizenship in, also pressed me on the point. “Oh yeah, then let’s hear you speak some Dutch, Joel.” And of course at this point I was forced to clarify that I meant I was of Dutch descent, and proceeded to inform them about the Dutch community in West Michigan.

To my surprise, they were completely unaware about it. Nor did they really seem to care that much. Perhaps I’ve been in Japan too long. Japanese people, possessing a very strong sense of racial identity, are fascinated by the subject of Japanese communities abroad. Dutch people, apparently, are not.

“So I suppose you guys are looking for a place to see the soccer game tonight,” someone said. (The European soccer championships are going on right now. I would never have known it either except for the company I’ve been keeping recently). They said that they were, and so we took them to the sports bar with us.

As we started walking towards the bar, Greg commented to me, “You know, I read somewhere that the Dutch people are now the tallest people in the world. And it’s easy to believe looking at these guys. They’re all giants out here in Japan.”

We went to the bar. The soccer player ended up buying drinks for everyone in our group. “Wow, you’re friend is really a nice guy,” Greg exclaimed to the others.
“Of course,” one of his friend replied. “He’s Dutch.”
“I’m Dutch too,” I said. Silence.

In the course of the conversation, on of our Dutch friends asked me what I did in Japan. I replied I was an English teacher. “Really? Do Japanese people study English in schools? We were just wondering that. No one around here seems to be able to speak English, so we just figured they didn’t study it.” He then went on to talk about how they had been at a restaurant, and the restaurant staff seemed to want to communicate with them, but were unable. The restaurant staff wanted to ask them where they were from, but were unable to do it. They had concluded that since Japanese people seemed unable to ask such an elementary question, English language education must not exist in the Japanese schools.

On the contrary, I informed him, the average Japanese adult has 8 years of English education. (3 years in Junior high school, 3 years in High School, 2 years in University).

He couldn’t believe it. I was somewhat at a loss to explain it myself. It was one of those things that had amazed me when I first came to Japan, but that I had gotten used to and somehow it no longer seems so incredible now.

The conversation was made more interesting by the fact that my Dutch friend did not speak English as a native language, but had learned it for 6 years in school. Now granted Dutch is another European language and shares some similarities to English (not to mention the same alphabet), but, even after admitting this, he still didn’t understand how a Japanese person could endure 6 years of English education and not be able to ask, “Where are you from?”

I tried to explain it to him as best I could. How the Japanese educational system is all built around tests, and how the students don’t have to learn any material, they just have to memorize it for a test and then they can forget about it. How many Japanese students sleep through class and hand in tests that are blank, but somehow keep getting moved up through the grades anyway. How many Japanese students don’t care about learning English, and just do the bare minimum to get by in class.

But in the end I admitted I was somewhat at a loss to understand it myself. And I added, “What really gets me though, is that every English class is started by the teacher asking the class, ‘how are you?’ and the students respond, ‘I’m fine thank you, and you?’. That is how they start every English class every day for 6 years of their life. And yet when I meet a high school senior, and I ask him, ‘How are you?’, the response I most often get is a confused look and ‘eigo wakaranai’ (I don’t speak English). I just want to strangle the kid after hearing that. ‘You’ve been saying this everyday for the past 6 years of your life! How can you not know it?’”

In the end we had to leave it as it was: a mystery. We chatted some more. He asked me how long I’ve been in Japan, and how good my Japanese was. I said I’d been here 3 years, and that my Japanese probably wasn’t as good as it should be considering how long I’ve been here. “I think I’ve made better progress in my Japanese than my students have in English during the same time,” I said. Then after thinking about it for a while, I added, “although granted I live here.” Eventually I got pulled into another conversation, and ended up talking to other JETs.

I talked to David briefly. “Boy I really feel small tonight,” David said. “I mean I always feel a bit short, but tonight….Who are all these tall people?”
I explained they were from the Netherlands.
“Ah, that would do it,” David said.
“You know I’m Dutch too,” I mentioned.
“Yeah, I know. I know."

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Dick Cheney tells a Senator to "Go Fuck Himself"
I don't want to make too big a deal about this, especially since I've previously stated on this web log that I don't understand why some people can get so upset over little four letter words.

But, just imagine for one moment what would have happened if Al Gore or Bill Clinton had ever told a Republican Senator to "go fuck himself" on the floor of the Senate, and then afterwards said he didn't regret doing it, and that it felt good. Just imagine it.

There would have been screeching of outrage all over the radio, TV, and newspaper columns. People would have said this is just another example of how the Clinton administration has disgraced the presidency. There would have been calls for resignation, or impeachment. And the incident would certainly have hounded Gore (or Clinton) the rest of the time they were in office. Anyone who thinks otherwise is suffering from amnesia over what the Clinton years was really like.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Changes and Experiments
With less than a month of school left, it may seem a little silly to be making a lot of changes in my daily routine, but I've been experimenting with a couple things lately.

Other Classes
I've started inviting myself to watch some of the other classes at the junior high school, specifically the Social Studies classes and the Japanese classes.

At the junior high school level, the Social studies class is a catch all for history, geography, civics, and government studies. Japanese class is of course not for learners of Japanese like me, but, similar to English classes in the States, it is for studying literature, grammar for native speakers and (unique to Japan) learning new Kanji.

I understand easily less than half of what is being said. And there are long periods were I have no completely clue what the teacher is talking about. It is much like my experiments with attending Japanese church services. It can be a bit boring, and there is a temptation to daydream (although come to think of it, I was always a day dreamer even back in America). And also I find myself having to fight to keep myself from sleeping when I can't understand what is being said. (Although again, even back in America my record on staying awake during class was never flawless...)

But despite all this, I figure it is a great opportunity to be placed in Japan's public schools, and I wanted to get a sense for what some of the other classes were like before I packed up and left. Part of me wishes I had started doing this a long time ago, but I understand so little of what is being said even now, it might have been completely pointless to have started much earlier.

The literature classes I understand the least. The last class I observed the students were reading an old Chinese story (translated into Japanese of course), about how a unified China was torn apart by civil war many years ago. Really the only part I understood was when the teacher compared the feeling of the story to visiting the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima. The story was written in an attempt to try and make sense of all the death and war that had happened in the author's lifetime.

The Social Studies classes are a bit more interesting to me. I sat in on a geography class with the 7th grade students, and was surprised to find out they didn't know that much more about the geography of Japan than I did. I've sat in on a couple Japanese history classes, and learned that some war was fought long ago by Samurai (that was all I could glean from that particular class).

The government classes with the 9th grade class are by far the most interesting. I've sat through 3 of those now. We've been studying the Japanese constitution. It is interesting because of how closely it seems to resemble the government classes I had as a student. The Japanese students cover the same intellectual ground, learning about the Magna Carta and the glorious Revolution, Rousseau and John Locke, etc. I guess since the Japanese constitution was composed with the help of the occupation forces it shouldn't be surprising it is based on Western Philosophy, but it just seemed a bit odd in a Japanese class. No Asian thinkers were covered at all in the class.

Of course anyone familiar with Japanese politics [and I'm no expert, I should get that out of the way right now] knows that Japanese politics is not an exact copy of the West, and also the Japanese political system has a lot of problems with corruption. But the Japanese Social Studies teachers I observed, like their Western counterparts, seem to be focused on the ideals behind the government more than the practice. One class I sat through, which I thought was particularly good, was a discussion on what Freedom actually means.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Concert on the Rock
As promised, this is an update on my life. This actually happened a couple weekends ago now, but I've gotten behind a bit on the old blog.
The weekend before last, my friend Eion and the gang from the Tropicoco's band organized a concert on Mount Hachimen. Without getting bogged down to much in the background details, Tropicoco is a Mexican bar out in this area that the expatriate community frequents. The owner of the bar and some of the other foreigners around here have formed sort of a salsa/rock band. The name of the band, as well as the line-up, is frequently changing. I sometimes say, only half joking, that everyone I know except me has at one time or another been a member of this band.

Anyway, they created and organized a concert event on Mount Hachimen, inviting other bands they knew or were connected with. They gave all the money they raised to a local orphanage. The event was pretty successful considering these guys created it out of thin air, and on rather short notice as well. Eion in particular had been working pretty hard the past couple weeks organizing and promoting the event.

Being the good friend I was, I did absolutely nothing to help. Despite Eion giving me a bunch of fliers, I didn't distribute them. I didn't even buy a ticket to the event until I was absolutely certain nothing better was going to be happening that weekend.

But despite my poor showing, I did have a good time at the concert. Anyone who has been to Mount Hachimen knows it is a very beautiful place (and I've taken a couple of you there who have come out to visit me). During World War II, an American airplane crashed into the mountain side, and so the people of the area built a peace park to commemorate the event. The park is very beautiful because of all the flower gardens and statues on the side of the mountain. A stage area and viewing area are above the peace park.

The concert went from 2 in the afternoon until 4:30 in the morning. From the mountain we could see the view of the surrounding area in the afternoon, and the city lights at night. It was a great place to have the concert. And the sunset was spectacular. (Actually I missed the sunset. Playing my usual role as the only sober driver, I got recruited to do some driving for another beer run. But I imagine it must have been spectacular).

A good afternoon all in all. Weather bordered on a bit too hot in the afternoon, but the evening and night was great. Good to sit outside with friends and listen to music. No interesting stories from the event really. I stole Greg's hat at one point, and he ran after me and tackled me. And when going on a beer run with Chris, Paul and I pretended we were going to try to ditch him by running away. Chris later said we had such a campy "Benny Hill" type run as we ran away, that he almost didn't dignify it by giving chase.

Oh, and my dancing got made fun of. When everyone was dancing in front of the stage, someone told me I really stood out. Not only because I was a lot taller than most of the Japanese, but because they said my dancing style seemed like it was from the 1920s, and they said the Japanese people around me were watching amazement as I flailed my langley limbs around. (I didn't notice this so much at the time.)

But other than those incidents, not too much in the way of good stories from the event. But a pleasant concert nonetheless.
The State of My Life
I'd just thought I'd paste a little write up about what exactly is going on with me these days. First...
A Blanket Apology for Not Returning E-mails
Anyone who is sick of hearing about this can just skip to the next section.
I realize that if I spent as much time actually writing e-mails as I do apologizing for not writing e-mails, my inbox would be in a lot better shape. But every so often the guilt of all the un-returned messages in my inbox gets the better of me, and I feel like I should issue another apology.

Although I've never been good at timely replies, this year, and the last 6 months especially, have been terrible. The usually excuses apply. Limited internet time, lots of people to try and keep in touch with, etc. And anyone who has been reading this weblog regularly probably has a good idea of where a lot of my time has been going.

All those excuses aside, I must confess I do waste a lot of time fooling around on the internet when I could be writing e-mails. But (and I know some of you can identify with this) it does seem to take a lot less energy to read than to write. There are just some times when I'm on the internet, but I can't be bothered to write anything. Like early in the morning when I first come in the office. Or when I return from school in the afternoon and am tired out.

Anyway, I'm really sorry to everyone to whom I haven't been doing a good job of keeping up my end of the correspondence. If it is any consolation, it's not you, it's me. You are not the only one I haven't been writing back to.

I'd ask people not to take it personally, but I sometimes take it personally when someone doesn't return my e-mails, so maybe that is unfair to ask. Just try and not be too angry at me. I will continue and try and keep this blog updated. And I do read any e-mails I get, as well as keep up on all of my friend's blogs. (If you have a blog, and I know about it, I've been reading it). So I guess that is kind of like keeping in touch. Not the same as personal correspondence I know, but it's something.

Right, enough groveling. Next subject:
What I'm doing after JET
Since the JET program has a 3 year cap, in about a month and a half now, I'll be finished with the job I'm at now. A lot of people have been asking me what I'm doing next, and my response is always the same: "Don't ask me that."

Really I have no clue right now. A bunch of ideas are bouncing around my head but I don't have anything nailed down. So as it stands right now, it looks like the plan is just to head back to Grand Rapids and sort things out from there.

I've sent out a few applications for teaching positions inside Japan. I probably haven't done as much work on this as I should have, but I do have at least one interview coming up next week. The thing is though that this is a bit of a bad time to be looking for work, since a lot of other 3rd year JETs are doing the same thing I am: looking for ways to stay in Japan and applying to the same companies. So I've got the interview lined up, but the company said they have been flooded with applications lately, so landing the actual job might be a bit of a stretch.

I'm also thinking about applying as a volunteer English teacher on the Peace Boat. This is a volunteer position only. It's not paid, and only for about 3 months, at which point it would be back to the drawing board. Despite the fact that it is volunteer, there is a lot of interest in these positions, so landing it is a bit competitive.

The interviews are in late August, so I'd have to extend my visa to even have a shot at it. I'm currently talking with the board of education about doing this, and it looks like we might be able to work something out. But considering this isn't even a guaranteed thing, it might well end up being a lot of extra trouble for nothing. But I think I'd like to give it try anyway.

So, depending on how everything sorts itself out, any number of variables could happen. If I end up landing a job that starts in September, and extend my visa through August at the same time, I might not come home at all this summer. On the other hand, if neither works out, I'll be home in August and will be staying in Grand Rapids for the indefinite future. So it is hard to say really at this point what is going on. Which is why I hate being asked about it.

What I've been doing lately
This one is a little bit easier to answer. I'm out of time at the moment, but I'll post something in the next couple days.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

From the Mailbag
A friend sent me this e-mail today which I thought was deserving of a larger audience.

I thought this article was interesting. It talks about how Bush has "refused" to attend funerals or send condolences to any American soldier killed in Iraq. It also shows how the government is making cuts to Veteran's Allowances and making it difficult for some soldiers to receive compensation/treatment for their wounds. Sounds like the government is grateful for their sacrifices.

The article goes on to describe President Bush's tacit support for racist institutions of the south and thus his support for the Confederate soldiers. Although I do think the comparison/contrast is a bit of a stretch (Is Bush really for Confederate soldiers and against those fighting in Iraq?), the facts in themselves are interesting.

Having read the article, I agree with his analysis. It is a bit of a stretch to say Bush is against those fighting in Iraq, but the facts do speak volumes. I encourage everyone to read the above link for themselves.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Rest of my Weekend: the Rave I didn’t go to, the porno-religion party, and the weird man on the street
As noted a couple posts ago, on Friday night I went out with Greg and some of his female Japanese friends and the Korean girl they were hosting. Actually Friday night we ended up staying at the bar long after our female companions had gone home. I sang Karaoke until my voice went, which probably wasn’t such a good idea because I was coming down with a bit of a cold anyway. The rest of the weekend I had a frog like voice which would crack frequently. This was much to the amusement of my friends, who thought I sounded just like that teen-age kid on “The Simpsons”. They tried to get me to talk a lot just so they could laugh at my voice, which I think only made my condition worse.

Since we were in Greg’s town of Kusu, we all spent the night at Greg’s apartment. Greg, who passed out at the bar, was the first one to go home. Eion didn’t make it back until sunrise. I was the moderate in the group, calling it a night at about 3.

The next morning Eion left to go back to his house to sleep some more. Greg and I dropped Dave back off at his house, and then spent the afternoon swimming at Ryomon waterfall in Kusu. If I had a digital camera, you would be looking at a picture of the waterfall now. As it is, you’ll just have to take my word that it is a very beautiful place to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Our options for Saturday night were two fold. There was an all night rave going on at Mount Aso, and a party in Oita city called, “Thou Passion”, which was described as a costume party with a porn star theme, and, if possible, a twist of religion.

Initially we were all leaning towards the rave. The last rave I went to in Japan I had a great time at, and remember seeing a lot of cute girls, as well as some of the more interesting extremes of Japanese fashion.

However since Mount Aso was 3 hours away, if we went we would have been committed to staying all night, and in the end we all agreed we didn’t have enough energy for that (although we ended up staying out all night anyway).

I felt somewhat guilty about going to “Thou Passion”. The costumes weren’t supposed to be obscene, just reminiscent of something a porn star might wear. But the religious side theme made me a bit uncomfortable. I thought maybe since I was only attending the party instead of organizing it, I would be morally okay. I also tried to convince myself that the party was only making fun of organized religion. And I thought maybe God understands these things are all in good fun. But I still felt a bit uncomfortable.

My costume, like everything I do in life, was half-assed. I didn’t really have anything that lent itself to this type of party, and I couldn’t be bothered to do any shopping for it. Greg and I stopped at a convenience store on the way into Oita city, and just by chance this store was selling chains and black wrist bands with crucifixes on them. I bought a few of these, but it turned out to be not enough to get the discounted entrance fee at the door. Which was fair enough I guess because most of the other costumes there were really elaborate.

There were a lot of people dressed up as priests, Angels, or devils. There was a DJ, music, and dancing. In the center of the room was a penis leaned up against a cross. I felt uncomfortable again and slipped off the wrist bands with the crosses on them. (Although I thought the chains looked pretty cool, and think from now on I’m going to incorporate them into my usual wardrobe.)

I spent most of my time outside the club instead of inside it (fortunately once we had paid the entrance fee, we could come and go as we pleased). This was partly because I was uncomfortable with this particularly party, but also really every time we go into Oita city, I hate getting stuck in a club.

Japanese cities are always set up with a separate district reserved for the night life. Oita isn’t a huge city by Japanese standards, but big enough to have a few blocks in the night life section. Walking through this part is always my favorite part of any night out in Oita. The area has a real vibrancy you can feel in the air, and everywhere you see other young people out and about, a lot of cute girls, interesting fashion, and of course people staggering around drunk. There is a park in the middle where a lot of people hang out. It’s just a fun place to be in. I always feel like when we end up stuck in a small club for the rest of the night, I’m missing the excitement of what is going on outside.

So I spent a good deal of the time either wandering the streets by myself, or hanging out with the smokers outside the club. At one point in the smoker's circle we were talking about something to do with Japan. I think it was the breast size of Japanese women. (I didn’t initiate this conversation, I just happened to be there at the time). An old drunk man was passing by, and over-heard us mentioning “Japanese” repeatedly. Clueing into what was probably the only English word he knew, he said, “Japanese? Japanese?” and then proceeded to open his case and show us his “Shamisen” (A Japanese traditional instrument, sort of like a banjo.) He then played a few notes on it and passed it around, before staggering off down the street again.

We had a lot of fun imagining this old man popping up at random and inappropriate times, chiming, “Did somebody say, Japanese?” before launching into a tune on the Shamisen. That joke kept us entertained for the rest of the night. (You know how these late night conversations go. Perhaps this is another case where you just had to be there).

We stayed out until morning, at which point I headed back to my town of Ajimu as the sun was coming up. And actually made it up for Church a few hours later. I’ve been doing a really good job of making it to Church recently despite the late nights. Unfortunately, I haven’t been doing a great job of staying awake inside the Church, which is a bit embarrassing since the congregation is only about 10 people.

When I got back from Church I slept the rest of Sunday afternoon. I woke up around 6, and started walking down to the store to buy something to eat. The neighbors saw me, and invited me over to their place for dinner, which was a nice gesture. I spent the rest of the evening there, but even after sleeping all afternoon, I was still tired enough to retire early Sunday night.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Remembering Reagan
It is probably bad form to say bad things about a man at the time of his death.

However there is certainly no denying that during his life Reagan was a polarizing figure. And at least as far as his public life is concerned, there is no separating the man from his politics.

Therefore the danger is that neo-conservatives will take advantage of Reagan's death to euloglize not only the man himself, but also the politics he stood for. And since this has already begun, I believe it is important to take a critical look at Reagan's politics, lest they become overly romanticized in his death.

There are two different view points of Reagan the President. One view is the Right's view that Reagan was one of the greatest and most astute Presidents this country has ever had. However some White House staff, insiders, and white house reporters have presented a different view. This view is of a man who frequently confused movies with reality, told apocryphal stories about his own life, didn't understand his own policies, and delegated much of his responsibilities to others. Nathan Bierma did a good job of exploring some of this in this Chimes articles a few years ago.

Of course I was not present at the White House during the Reagan years, and I can't vouch for either view. I'll freely admit that my inclination towards the latter view is based solely on my liberal biases. Besides now that Reagan is dead, it probably doesn't matter now, and perhaps bringing it up now is inappropriate as a personal attack against a dead man.

EXCEPT, I think it does raise the question of how fair it is to blame Reagan personally for everything bad about his administration. But put that thought on hold for now.

One of the reasons Reagan is such a hero to the right is that he was supposedly responsible for winning the cold war and bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Personally I think the Soviet Union was responsible for destroying the Soviet Union, and Reagan just happened to be in the driver's seat around the time it happened. I've always thought it was a bit of a contradiction in right wing logic to argue simultaneously that 1) Communism was a philosophy that was doomed to failure, and 2) that if it was not for Reagan, the Soviet Union would still exist.

There is also the theory that by stepping up confrontation with the Soviet Union, and with his "Evil Empire" speech, Reagan helped the hard liners within the Soviet Union, and lengthened, rather than shortened, the cold war.

And then there is Reagan's support of terrorism in Nicaragua.

I was not old enough to be politically aware during the Reagan years, but I did do my undergraduate thesis paper for my history major on Nicaragua during the 1980s. I believe what the Reagan administration did to the country of Nicaragua is unforgivable. The Contras, whom Reagan supported rhetorically as well as financially and with CIA support, committed numerous acts of terrorism against the people of Nicaragua. In order to intimidate supporters of the Sandinistas, the Contras frequently engaged in massacres of peasant villages, as well as intimidation tactics such as cutting of the arms of children. The CIA during this time also illegally mined Nicaragua's harbors.

Of course, as noted above, I guess we have to question whether it is fair to blame Reagan personally for everything the Contras and the CIA did in Nicaragua during his administration. And although his administration continued to illegally fund the Contras after Congress had forbidden it, there is the possibility that given Reagan's detatchment from some of his policies, he was actually telling the truth when he said he knew nothing about Iran-Contra.

The situation in Nicaragua during the 1980s is still a matter of debate. It shouldn't be, but it is. Reagan maintained to the end that the Contras were freedom fighters and similar to the founding fathers of America. Neo-conservatives continue to support this view. After spending a semester researching Nicaragua, I think this view is ridiculous, but I don't have time to re-hash everything on this particular post. Let us simply note that another group of Reagan's freedom fighters, the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, are now widely agreed to have been terrorists.

Which brings me to the politics of the Middle East. I don't think there can be any debate that Reagan's support of Islamic extremists in Afghanistan (including at the time Osama Bin Laden, who received CIA funding) was a mistake. I don't think there can be any debate that supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons, and then continuing the support of Saddam even after he had used chemical weapons on his own people, was a mistake.

And that is not even mentioning the federal deficit, which (I think again there is no debate) we owe largely to Reagan.

Certainly just as it would be a mistake to say Reagan was a hero, it would be a mistake for me to say that everything the man ever did was wrong. But it is important to keep these points in mind when we hear others praising the Reagan years.

Update: Brian Bork has some intelligent thoughts on the matter as well.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Friday Night with Greg and the gang and the Korean Homestay Friend
Greg invited me to a night out in his town in Kusu this Friday. It turns out one of his Japanese friends was hosting a Korean friend for a brief homestay. They were all going out for a Friday night outing, and being an all female group, they wanted to recruit some guys to go along as well. Plus since the Korean girl spoke English but no Japanese, they were looking to recruit some English speakers. So they called Greg, and he called up Eion and David and I.

The two week trip I took to Korea when I was 19 is fading from my memory fast, and Japan has become the only reference point I have for Asian culture. Foreign people who stay too long in Japan sometimes start to think that all of Asia is the same as Japan. I've heard several stories now about other JETs go to Korea and are surprised by how forthright and blunt everyone is. Apparently Koreans do not share the Japanese custom of always concealing one's true feelings.

What little I've seen from Korean friends here in Japan sometimes seems to reinforce this. And the Korean girl last night as well said a lot of things I've never heard from a Japanese girl.

For instance at the first restaurant we went to, she appeared to be a little tired. I asked if she was okay, and she replied that she was tired because she and her Japanese homestay host had stayed up very late in the night watching pornographic movies, and then had to wake up early this morning.

Initially I thought I had misunderstood, but upon pursuing the conversation, it turns out that indeed the two of them had been up until 3 last night watching pornography. The Korean girl said she had not had sex in 4 months, and so the pornographic movies excited her.

Turning slightly red, I then asked why then they had to wake up so early this morning. It turns out the only reason they had woken up was to watch the movies again. At this point the Japanese girl, who hadn't been listening to the conversation, realized what we were talking about and jumped into say that, yes, they had woken up early this morning to watch more pornography, but it had been only at the insistence of the Korean girl. Then began a brief debate about who's decision it was to watch the pornography, and who had been more excited by the movies. I think it was somewhere during the course of this conversation that I came close to choking on a piece of raw fish.

Another interesting thing about last night was since the Korean girl spoke no Japanese, she had to use English to communicate to her Japanese friends. Certainly being out in Japan has given me a new perspective on the importance of English as an international language. When Ajimu town hosted Korean exchange students for a week, they had to use English to communicate with them. It seems a bit surreal that these two Asian countries, right next to each other, have to use English to communicate. But I guess that is the modern age.

Greg, Dave, Eion and I occasionally had to do some translating when some one's English failed. We went to a bar after the restaurant. Since Kusu town is close to a base for the Japanese Self Defense Force (the Japanese equivalent of the army), Kusu town is a popular hang out for the SDF members at night.

The Korean girl proved to be very popular with the Japanese soldiers at the bar. One of them was trying to communicate with her, and I got called into translate. During the course of the conversation, he wanted to ask is she had any venereal diseases, which I refused to translate.

In a scene which seemed straight out of a Hollywood movie, I stuck my chest out, pounded on the table, and said, "no sir, I will not translate that, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Actually I wish it had been like that. But those of you who know me well know I'm much more of a wimp. I said something like the Japanese equivalent of, "Um, I really kind of feel uncomfortable saying that and um I'd rather not translate that for you." Sensing perhaps a reluctance to take a stand, the SDF fellow began to plead with me to ask this for him, and it created a rather embarrassing scene. In the end though I stood firm.

The Korean girl meanwhile was making it very apparent that the advances of the SDF guy were unwanted. In an effort to try and be a gentleman and help the situation, I told the SDF fellow the Korean girl and I were a couple. But once she realized what we were talking about, the Korean girl quickly denied it, which I think caused the SDF guy to get a bit upset with me, and created another embarrassing situation. Fortunately though I got through the night without any fights.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

correspondence with my successor
In a short two months my time on the JET program will be coming to an end. Recently I've begun e-mail correspondence with my incoming successor.
In these e-mails I've been trying to sort through all the wisdom I've acquired in the past 3 years, and pass on what I think is valuable to my successor. Since this correspondence does a pretty good job of summarizing what I've been doing for the past 3 years, I thought I'd post it on this web log.

Perhaps it is the height of egoism to imagine that my life in this much detail is of any interest to anyone except my incoming successor (and even then...). But I often I wonder if anything I post on this web log is of any interest to anyone else. And since I had these e-mails already typed up anyway, and it was just a matter of copying and pasting it to the web log, I figured why not. Anyone who's interested can have a look, anyone else can just go back to what ever you were doing.

(Okay, small confession, I didn't simply copy and paste. I combined a few e-mails into one, and I edited out any info I thought was inappropriate to post on the web. But this was more or less how it was. Really).

The E-mail

Okay, as promised this is the “long e-mail.” I’ll try and summarize the job, the town, and anything else I think is worth knowing. It is a long e-mail. You probably don’t want to read it all in one sitting. I certainly didn’t write it all in one sitting. (And in fact since I started writing this before some of our phone conversations, you might find some repeated information in here). You might want to print it out first and read it, or read it in segments or whatever, but I hope everything in here will be of some use to you. (Also I’ve spent a lot of time writing this, but little time proof reading. You’ll have to forgive the typos, but if the meaning is unclear, e-mail me for clarification.)

First a little background
The town of Ajimu has had an ALT for the last 15 years or so, or close to the very beginning of the JET program. However that ALT worked primarily in the high school, and was employed by the prefecture, not the town.
The second ALT, the one employed by the town board of Education, is a recent addition. My predecessor was the first ALT in this position, I’m the second, you’ll be the third.
My predecessor I think had a bit of a rough time. He stayed only for one year. I by contrast have had a great time, stayed the full 3 years, and will be leaving with some sadness.
What this all says to me is that the actual situation is only half the equation. How the person reacts to it makes up the other half. For what it is worth, I’ve had a really great experience, and I think you will too, but since my predecessor had such a rotten time, I’m hesitant to guarantee anything.
When I was in your position now, the e-mail correspondance and phone conversations I received from my predecessor were a bit depressing. However, since I was already committed to coming out to Japan and making the best of my experience, I looked at what he had written me, and I said to myself, “Right, I’m not going to let any of this stuff get me down.”
And that (if I can say this without sounding too much like your dad) is I think the key to a successful experience. The job, like everything else in the world, has some positive things about it, and some negative things. Same with the lifestyle in small town Ajimu. The key is not to focus on the negatives all the time, and to try and make the best out of every situation.
I don’t know if it was his intention, but by focusing on the negatives I think my predecessor helped me a lot. I was already prepared for the bad stuff when I arrived, and wasn’t taken by surprise. I had already made up my mind that I could handle this stuff and still have a good time.
So, I won’t gloss over the negatives in my correspondence with you either. But I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to discourage you from coming out here. You’re going to have a great time, and you may even end up staying the full 3 years like I did.
OK, so lets get some of the negative things out of the way.

1). They didn’t request you and they are not quite sure what to do with you.

“They” is the Japanese teachers of English in the junior high schools you will be working with. The Board of Education in Ajimu decided it would be a good idea to have an ALT, but the teachers you actually work with are often unsure of how to utilize you in the lessons. You will teach at 3 different Junior High Schools, with 4 different Japanese Teachers of English (JTE in JET lingo). Some of them are better than others in terms of involving you in the lesson.
This frustration is compounded by the fact that

2). English education in Japan is focused on written grammar and written examinations.

Since oral and verbal communication is not a factor in the University Entrance examinations, the JTEs and the students will be reluctant to focus too much on it. Also the Junior High School curriculum is very rigid, and the JTE has material he or she needs to get through in a certain amount of time, and there is not a lot of room for your ideas or for communication activities.

Of course the above is true for the Junior High School only. At the Elementary school there is no JTE, so you’ll more or less be running the show (which can bring frustrations of it’s own, but more about that later).

3. The Japanese work ethic stipulates that you be present at work for the entire work day, even when there is nothing to do.

Okay, this is probably the biggest one, the one that makes or breaks JETs. A typical day at the Junior High school will involve only 3 lessons. The rest of the time you have to entertain yourself in the office. When students are preparing for tests, or taking tests, you’ll have no lessons. All day entertaining yourself in the office. When there is no school and the students are all at home, you’ll be asked to come into the Board of Education. All day sitting at your desk entertaining yourself.
What do you do? This is great time to study Japanese. Read all those books you’ve always wanted to read, but never got around to. Write that novel that has always been inside of you. Make small talk with the person seated across from you. Use the internet if you are at the BOE (you’ll have internet access at the BOE, but not the schools).
There are some ways out of this. Tuesday and Friday afternoon there are free Japanese tutoring sessions in Oita city (ask the 2nd and 3rd year JETs about these). On a day with no school, the BOE usually lets me have the whole day off to go to these 2 hour tutoring sessions. Rest of the day you can wander around Oita city or whatever. Or you can find something you want to do, and ask the BOE if it would be okay to do that instead of sitting in the office. Or you can make something up (my predecessor wrote up a proposal that the ALT should spend days with out classes visiting the tourist cites in Ajimu to become more familiar with the town). Or sometimes I just sit nicely at my desk all morning, and around noon quietly ask if I can just go home for the rest of the day. Usually they say yes.
But, the above will only get you so far. You will have to spend some time in the office doing nothing. It’s part of being a JET. Perhaps JETs like me who are somewhat introverted and enjoy studying or reading a good book are at an advantage here.

When my predecessor was e-mailing me 3 years ago, he told me to go to the website It’s sort of the unofficial JET website. It has a lot of stuff in it you won’t read in the JET brochures. Keep in mind most of the posts on bigdaikon are just people blowing of steam, and don’t let it discourage you, but be aware that these complaints do exist.
Right, that’s all the really depressing stuff I can think off. Next topic

Ajimu Town
At 8,000, Ajimu is a pretty small town. If your vision of Japan is big cities and Neon lights and Tokyo, you’re going to be in for a surprise. This is probably not the Japan you’ve been picturing. This is the country side. That probably deserves to be emphasized, because every year there seems to some confusion about it.
For instance when I was corresponding with my predecessor Ben, he was trying to convince me that I needed a car. I was on a big “simplify my life” kick back then, and thought I didn’t need a car, I’d just walk or take the public transportation where ever I went. I can only look back and laugh at that now.
Or last year when Mike (the ALT at Ajimu High School) was preparing to come out, his predecessor tried to explain Ajimu was the country side. Mike e-mailed back to ask how many movie theaters were in Ajimu. We really had a good laugh over that one. Not, “Are there any movie theaters?” but “How many movie theaters are there?” (FYI, nearest movie theater is an hour drive away.)
On the other hand I don’t want to emphasize things into the other extreme as well. Although no one would ever go into Ajimu for a shopping holiday, there are some stores. There’s a couple convenience stores, two supermarkets, some Pachinko parlors, a sports store, a couple clothing stores, an electronics store, home supply stores, ect. There’s even a couple restaurants. And the town is big enough to sustain 3 Junior high schools, and one high school.
Whatever, you’ll see the place soon enough for yourself anyway. I won’t spend too much time trying to describe it perfectly.

My friend Greg has an online photo Album including some pictures from a day I showed him and a couple other friends around Ajimu. You can view them at this site. You'll have to create an account with Ofoto, but it only takes 30 seconds or so, really easy to do. Anyway, all the pictures in this set are taken in Ajimu. I'm the tall guy with the bad hair cut. Let
me know if the link doesn't work or something.

If you’re from an urban area, you’ll probably find the adjustment to small town life just as difficult, if not more than, the adjustment to a foreign culture. Living in a small town has the same advantages and disadvantages of small towns anywhere else in the world. On the plus side small town people are very friendly. The Japanese country side is breathtakingly beautiful (as I hope those pictures indicated). You can see the stars clearly at night. Everyone knows who you are and you become a little a little mini-celebrity in the small town (as opposed to big city JETs who sometimes get lost in the crowd).
On the negative side, there aren’t that many people your age. When the young people graduate from High School, they go to University, and most of them never come back. So it’s a town filled with children and their parents, but not too many 20 somethings (although there are some). Night life is pretty boring to non-existant.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I wished I lived in a bigger city with more things to do and more people my age around, but again, the key to survival here is attitude. If you become bitter about being in a small town, and are always comparing yourself to big city JETs, you’ll have a miserable time. Enjoy the small town. Go hiking and enjoy the beauty. Take advantage of the small town community to make some really good and close Japanese friends, and become part of the community.
And besides, the way I figure it is people in small towns can always drive into the city for a night out, but people in big cities don’t often go into the country, so I like to think small town JET life gives you the best of both worlds.
Now as mentioned there is practically no public transport in Ajimu, but with a car Usa is only about 20-30 minutes away. Usa is a town of about 30,000. The JETs in Usa will complain about what a small country town Usa is, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Coming in from Ajimu, Usa feels like a big metropolis. Usa isn’t a huge place, but it does have video rental stores, shopping centers, and some semblance of a night life.
Oita, the prefectural capital is only an hour away, and if you really get the big city bug, Fukuoka, one of the 7 biggest cities in all Japan, is only 2 hours away.
So you’ll probably spend a lot of time in your car, but you don’t need to worry too much about being lonely in a small town. Most nights, even week nights, I find myself hopping in the car and going into either Usa or Oita or another neighboring city.
Oh, and you have no private life in a small town. This can’t be emphasized enough. If you have a girl spend the night, and the neighbors see her leaving the apartment in the morning, you will be surprised how quickly that information will travel back to the board of education, where you will be bombarded with all sorts of questions about this girl. And then every day afterwards for the rest of the time you are here the Board of Education will ask how she is doing.

I guess hot and cold are all a matter of perspective. Coming from Michigan, I found the summers in Ajimu unbearably hot and humid, but the winters pretty mild. JETs from warmer areas of the world have had the opposite perspective.
Here’s the kicker about the winters though: there’s no central heating or insulation. I guess central heating and insulation is one of those things you don’t truly appreciate until it is gone. I never realized how cold even a mild winter would feel if there was no way to escape the cold. There will be a heater in the apartment, but it doesn’t work all that great and because there is no insulation, you’ll find 30 minutes after you turn it off the room is cold again. So you either have to run it all night or go to bed wrapped up like an Eskimo. In the winter when I wake up in the middle of the night, I can often see my breath. You’ll be able to see your breath in the schools as well, since those aren’t really properly heated either.
Right, so bottom line, try and bring clothes for both summer and winter extremes. I know it’s difficult because you only get two suitcases, and then besides plus once you get over here you’ll find the apartment has very little closet space to put things in. But as much as you can, bring a lot of clothes for both extremes. The winters aren’t so much freezing cold as they are constantly cold where ever you go, so you’ll want to bring a lot of long sleeves and sweaters and stuff you can layer on.
And I guess while I’m on the topic about clothes, I’ll mention some other stuff here about what you might want to consider bringing.

Right, as mentioned above, you are in a bit of a pickle because you can only bring two suitcases. So you might not even have room to bring everything I suggest, but I’ll make the suggestions anyway, and you can see what you have room for and make your own calls about what you think is important or not.
You’ll need your suit and tie for the orientation at Tokyo, and then after that very seldom. Graduation times, other ceremonies, very seldom. I’ve probably worn my suit only about 10 times over the 3 years I’ve been here.
Everyone at the Board of Education usually has a nice shirt and a tie on, but don’t follow their dress code. Instead pay attention to what the other teachers wear at the schools, and you’ll notice the dress code is pretty casual.
You definitely don’t want to wear anything nice to the elementary schools. You’ll have kids climbing all over you and grabbing your sleeves and wanting to be picked up, etc. And you’ll notice the other teachers at the elementary school usually dress really casually as well.
Even at the Junior High Schools, I frequently play sports with the students during noon break, so my general rule of thumb is “never wear anything you can’t play soccer in.”
My predecessor says he used to wear shorts to the schools. I think that is pushing it personally, but the fact that he got away with it I think demonstrates probably anything goes. What I usually try and do is wear something like corduroy pants or khaki slacks or something that looks kind of semi-professional, but that I can still run around in and don’t feel too bad about playing soccer in the mud. You’ll make your own calls of course, but you might want to keep that in mind for packing.
Footwear is another important thing to consider especially since you change shoes so many times in Japan, and because if you have big feet like me (I’m 30 centimeters) you won’t be able to buy shoes in Japan.
You can’t wear your shoes inside the schools, but just going in your socks is considered bad form (not that I haven’t done it though). You might want to bring either inside shoes or slippers for inside the school (an inside shoe can be anything as long as it’s never been worn outside). Since you’ll be going to 7 different schools, you can either take the same pair of slippers everywhere, or bring a few different pairs and leave some in your shoe locker at the school. Also you’ll need separate shoes for the gymnasium.
Because you are always taking your shoes on and off, you’ll wear through the heels pretty quickly. You might want shoes that come on and off pretty easily. Also you’ll probably be asked to participate in a lot of sports festivals and town marathons, so running shoes are a good idea. And there’s a lot of great hiking around these parts, so a good pair of hiking shoes is another thing to consider.
Alright, now let’s move on to the actual...

You’ll start and finish each day at the Board of Education. You don’t actually do anything at the Board of Education, but that is where you’re based. It’s where you clock in at morning, clock out in the afternoon, and where you’re desk is. The BOE is also where you have internet access.
You are supposed to arrive at the BOE at 8 O’clock. I’ve certainly been late my fair share, and in fact most of them are rarely there at 8 sharp either, but as with any new job it is probably a good idea to start out being on time.
You’ll leave from the BOE to go to your school. There seems to be a slight miscommunication between the BOE and the schools, since when I first arrived the BOE told me to be at the schools by 9, but since first period actually starts at 8:55, it is a good idea to try and get to the school by at least 8:45.
You’ll be at the school from 9 (or 8:45) until 3, when you head back to the BOE. Although since I don’t actually do anything at the BOE, I will agree to stay later at the school if there if they want me to teach 6th period or if there is something to do.
You’re contract states that you have to stay at the BOE until 4, at which point you are free to go. Because you are a JET, you get better treatment than everyone else there, who has to stay there till 5. And they do notice that.
You’ll have to make your own call about what to do. My first year I voluntarily stayed until 5 with everyone else, which I think was greatly appreciated and helped my relations in the office. (Group mentality is very valued in Japan). Although after a while it seemed like there was just so much to go out and do, and especially since it gets dark so early around here I started to really want that extra hour back, and started to leave at 4 again. At which point I think I did start to feel some bad vibes again. But I knew it was my right to do so, and I wanted to go out and do stuff in the afternoon, and I wasn’t doing anything important at the BOE anyway. You’ll have to make your own call about this, but the last couple years I’ve been leaving at 4, so they’ll be used to you doing this. If you start staying later, they will appreciate your effort to show solidarity, but then if you decided you want to leave at 4 again it may be harder to do.

The Schools
You’ll teach at 7 schools, 3 Junior high schools, 4 elementary schools. In a normal week you’ll visit all 3 of the junior high schools, and 2 out of the four elementary schools (you’ll hit the other 2 the following week).

Junior High Schools
We’ve been over some of this ground before. You’ll be team teaching at the Junior High Schools, and the JTE won’t always know what to do with you.
You’ll be at 3 Junior High Schools. Of those 3 only Ajimu Junior High school is big enough to justify having 2 JTEs, so you’ll be working with a total of 4 JTEs. (Ajimu Junior High School is also the only Junior high where you might be asked to do more than 3 classes in a day.)
Some of these JTEs are better at involving me in the lesson than others. Some of them make communication activities for me to interact with the students, some of them just have me do the “human tape recorder” bit, where I just do model reading and pronunciation for the students.
Because you are only at each junior high school once a week, and because the teachers don’t have a lot of flexibility in the curriculum, it is difficult to coordinate lesson planning with the JTEs. I usually don’t do any preparation at all for the JHS. I show up, and they tell me what I’ll be doing that day.
I was content to leave it at that. Having been an education major at University, and aware of how much work lesson planning is, I thought it wasn’t such a bad deal. I was getting all the fun of interacting with the students during class, and none of the hard work of lesson planning outside of class. The flip side of this though is that sometimes the complete lack of any responsibility makes you feel a bit useless some days, and can be a bit mind-numbing too. On the other hand, I feel that if I had volunteered for more work, I would have some days where I would regret having asked for the extra work. So I figured both were equally as good, and I just left it alone.
If your keen to get in on more of the lesson planning you could give it a try. Some of the JTEs are very protective of their classrooms, and won’t want you messing around with it, but I have the feeling some of them might be open to more joint collaboration if you suggested it. (I think you’ll get a feel for who I’m talking about once you’re here). Again, since your only at each JHS once a week, if you wanted to plan some of your own lessons you’d have to coordinate it at least a week in advance with the JTE. Ask them what they think they’ll be studying next week, and ask if you can design an activity or help teach it.
But other than that, your job is basically just to assist the JTE in the classroom with whatever he or she is doing. Although some of the JTEs you teach with can at times be over controlling or dismissive of you, it is to your advantage to stay on good terms with them, so try and be friendly and helpful to them even if you feel slighted. Be careful about correcting them in front of class (or maybe don’t correct them at all during class), if the students talk with you about the JTE outside of class, assume that whatever you say will probably get back to the JTE. And offer to help marking the homework. The JTEs really love that.
I tend to look at the main part of being at the JHS as just interacting with the students. I eat try and eat lunch with them (some of the schools will invite you to each lunch with the students. At other schools you’ll have to take the initiative). I play sports or cards with them at noon break, and I help them with cleaning time. And just look for anything else you can plug yourself into. Again, you won’t always get an invitation, but if you take the initiative and ask you can join the kids when they are in PE class, or outside doing yard work, or watch them practice for music class.
There are also after school clubs and activities. I never did this, but it’s not a bad idea if you want to. The obvious problem is because you will only visit each JHS once a week, it will be hard to become involved in any after school clubs. Plus it involves staying later than your scheduled time, and after a long day of sitting doing nothing in the office, you may find yourself itching to bolt when your time is up (I know I sure did). So that is why I never did it. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get involved in the clubs if you feel like it. Again though you won’t receive an invitation. You’ll have to take the initiative.

Elementary School
Forget everything I just said about the JHS, the Elementary school is night and day difference.
There is no JTE (which can also mean there is no one who speaks decent English, but you’ll get by) and there is no English curriculum. Everything is on you. The kids pretty much know nothing, so assume nothing is too easy or too simple.
The first year I was here, the elementary school teachers helped me prepare lessons. Then gradually the schools started to transfer the responsibility onto me, until now I really do everything, and am often alone in the classroom. I’m not sure if it will follow the same pattern with you. After 2 years of having me do everything, they might have gotten accustomed to it and expect the same of you right off the bat, so you should be ready to hit the ground running.
Typically you’ll do 3 lessons a day. Since the elementary school is 1st through 6th grade, and since you are on a bi-weekly schedule, this means that you’ll only see each class once a month. And by the time you’ve met them again, they’ll have forgotten whatever you taught them last time. So I’ve more or less given up on trying to teach any solid material, and just try and do fun ESL games instead. I’m sure with your experience you have a few of these in your pocket as well. If during the next year you hit a bump or need some ideas though, feel free to send an e-mail anytime.
The 4 elementary schools you’ll teach at very according to size. Sada Elementary school is the smallest, and small classes make a big difference. Ajimu Elementary school is the largest, and I was certainly challenged in terms of classroom discipline.
Which brings me to an important point: classroom discipline in the elementary schools is a mess. The Japanese schools tend to operate mostly by internal motivation instead of external. There aren’t any external controls, but the students will often motivate themselves to be diligent and study. This works very well at the Junior high schools. At the elementary schools it doesn’t work very well at all.
The Japanese teacher really has very little weapons except to sternly scold the children. Sending the kid out of the class is illegal, and there really isn’t any other sort of discipline system in place. You’ll have a few kids in the larger classes who will never shut up, and you’ll just have to talk over them. I’ve had fist fights break out during my lesson, and after the Japanese teacher broke it up, the combatants were simply told to go back to their seats and there was no further repercussions (the fist fight resumed 5 minutes later, with the same result). And of course kids will be bouncing in and out of their seats.
So, if the Japanese teacher has very little control, you can only imagine how you, not speaking the language and not being an authority figure to the kids, are going to struggle. Therefore bring in boring lessons at your own risk. You can get away with a lot of stuff at Sada, but at Ajimu elementary I usually try and limit myself only to games that can be played in the gym.
This year a teacher was transferred from Sada Elementary to Ajimu. Since because of combined classes I am able to teach all the grades at Sada in one visit, the teacher was a little disappointed to learn that at Ajimu I only teach 3 grades a visit. He asked me if I’d be willing to teach all 6 classes.
Since Ajimu elementary is my worst school, I wasn’t thrilled at the idea but how could I say no when I do so little work as it is? So I agreed, and you’ll probably inherit this decision. Sorry and good luck.

Extra Curriculars

English Conversation Class
I’m putting this under extra-curriculars, but it is probably more of a grey area. It’s not in your contract, but most BOE JETs are usually expected to do an Adult conversation class in their town. But it’s not in your contract, so it is your decision.
When I first arrived, the BOE suggested to me I set up an adult class, and I went along with it. But that was 3 years ago, and because everyone gets transferred around every year, it is no longer the same BOE that it was 3 years ago. So it might not even be a priority to this BOE, and you might not even get asked.
However I’d recommend doing it, whether they bring it up or not. For one thing it’s a good way to meet some of the other Ajimu people. For another thing it is pretty laid back, and it’s volunteer anyway, so you can have some fun with it. Plus since the elementary schools are all basic English, and the JHS you have no control over, this is a good outlet for your creative impulses in terms of doing lessons.
When I started the class 2 1/2 years ago, we ran an ad in the local Ajimu paper. The ad specified all ages were okay. I was thought that was a good idea because I wanted Junior High and high school students to feel free to come as well. However it turns out “all ages” really means “all ages”. A large number of parents signed their elementary school age kids up for the class.
I then decided I couldn’t really teach adults and little kids in one class, and split the class into two groups. I did the kids class for about a year, and it was a lot of fun and the kids were really great and cute and everything, but working with little kids does take a lot of energy, and after a year I decided I had had enough of doing this as a volunteer, and ended the class.
The adult class had about 40 people sign up for it, of drastically varying abilities, and the first 6 months it was a difficult class to teach. But then people began to drop out rapidly, and before too long I was left with only about 10 regulars. And that is pretty much where the class is today.
If you decide to do this class, you have two options. You can put in an advertisement in the newspaper and start fresh, or I can arrange to transfer my class to you. Or, maybe you’ll want a little time to get settled in and think about it. In which case I’ll just give you the contact information of my current students, and you can just wait on making a decision. Just tell me what you want to do.
Although the class size is much smaller, the ability difference is still pretty significant. What I’ve ended up doing is splitting the time. From 7:30 to 8 we do something a bit challenging, from 8 to 8:30 we do something ridiculously easy, and from 8:30 to 9 we have cookies and tea and just do free conversation. I tell the students they can come late and go early as they please, and just do the parts of the class they want.
For the 7:30 to 8 part we have been working through a comic book called “Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism.” As the name implies, it is a critical examination of the US foreign policy and why the US is in a constant state of warfare. This book has a lot of advantages. For one it is a comic book so it contains a lot of illustrations to accompany the text. Secondly it has been translated into Japanese, and I have both versions. So typically I’ll photo copy a page, (or section of a page) hand it out, we’ll discuss the meaning and I’ll try and explain the book in easier English, and then at 8 I just stop wherever we are, and hand out the Japanese translation.
I use this book because I think peace education is important, and I thought this was a good way to combine peace education and ESL. It is about American foreign policy, but since Japan has been getting sucked into America’s foreign wars recently, I think it has relevance for a Japanese audience.
With all the political vocabulary in this book, it is a bit challenging even for the better students. But I think some of them like being challenged. And they like the feeling of working through “real” English material. And when I pass out the Japanese translation at the end, even the less advanced students can understand. And I’ve had some of the less advanced students tell me they enjoy learning about history and English at the same time.
But, admittedly, the primary motivation for using this book is to do peace education, and if that is not high on your priority list, you’ll probably going to find incorporating this book into your lessons more trouble than it is worth. As I have several copies, I’ll leave you a copy of each translation in case you want them, but it will be your class from August, and you can take it in whatever direction you want.

English Speaking Society
The English Speaking Society (or ESS) is the English club at the high school. It usually meets once a week, although it can get cancelled often for various reasons.
Under the Japanese system, Ajimu High School is run by the prefecture, not the town. So it is not connected with the Ajimu Board of Education. So it is not part of your job, and no one at the BOE will care one way or another. They won’t be upset if you decide not to do it, and you won’t get any extra points if you do. Mike, the ALT at the high school, doesn’t mind my help but he doesn’t really need it either. The only reason to do ESS is because you enjoy it.
And I do enjoy it. A couple years ago I asked the ALT at Ajimu High school if it would be okay if I came in and helped out with the ESS. When Mike came took over at Ajimu High School last year, I’ve continued coming in and helping.
For one thing it is a good way to get your foot in the door in the high school, met some of the high school students and the high school teachers. And if you stay here long enough, it will become a good way to stay in touch with your former students. I’ve been here long enough that all of the high school students are my former JHS students. (except those from Innai JHS, the neighboring town).
Because the club is made up of students who come voluntarily, it is very enjoyable to work with students who like English and who are good at it.
The timing is a bit inconvenient. When I first came to Japan, the high school had school on Saturday. That has since been eliminated, but they have been experimenting with lengthening the school day, which often results in ESS being pushed late in the day, like at 5 or 5:30.
But aside from that inconvenience, I recommend you do it. Talk to Mike if you’re interested.

English Section in the Ajimu Library
After about a year or so in Japan, I had picked up enough Japanese to be able to read a few characters. Not enough to read any books, but I found out comic books were great practice. You could just look at the pictures and tell what was going on. Any words you could figure out were a bonus, but otherwise the pictures told the story.
So I decided comic books were a great way to learn another language, and decided the Ajimu Library should have some English comic books.
With the cooperation of the BOE and the librarians, I set up an English comic book corner in the Ajimu library. I filled it with any thing I could get my hands on. Everything from the usual superman and batman comics to political cartoons to the picture bible to a comic book introduction to Noam Chomsky. Admittedly some of this is not ideal for ESL, but I just wanted to get enough books to get a section large enough to attract people’s attention in the hopes that they would look through it and find something interesting. Every time I get my hands on a new comic book, I give it to the Ajimu Library.
This is pretty much just my project, and no one else at the BOE really cares about it at all. But if you brought a couple comic books with you from Australia and presented it to the library, they would probably appreciate the gesture. Anyway, if you have anything you want to donate, just give it directly to the librarians. I’ve been trying to limit myself to stuff that is actually bound in book format and suitable for a library, rather than the cheap comic magazines.

Home stay
Now this is definitely going way above and beyond the call of duty. And is probably not even a good idea the first year (it might be better to let the town get to know you a bit better first before they entrust their kids on an overseas trip with you). But if you go far enough back in my weblog, you’ll notice I did bring eight kids back with me during Christmas this year.
If you ever decide to do something like this, feel free to e-mail me for advice or tips, etc.

The Apartment

Um, yeah to be perfectly honest space wise it is not great. Among the other JETs, I live in the smallest apartment I know of, which is a bit ridiculous considering I'm out in the country side, where you would think there would be lots of room for
bigger housing.
My predecessor was a bit upset about it. But since he had already told me about it, I had resigned myself to having a small apartment before I even got to Japan, so just accepted it.
It's small, even by Japanese standards, and smaller than any of the other JETs I know. But I figure, how much space does a man need, right? I don't run laps or go jogging in my apartment, it is just a place to keep my clothes and to sleep in.
On the plus side it is pretty new and modern. Working stove (no oven unfortunately) hot water in the shower, western style toilet, heater and air conditioner (all the above luxeries that not every JET has).
I'll get more into this later, but I'm somewhat embarresed to say the place has deteriated a bit under my care. I guess at this point all I can do is say I'm sorry. Some of it was my fault--I'm just a messy guy as everyone else around here will vouch for.
But some of it I don't feel was really my fault. I didn't know how to deal with the moist humid climate when I first came here. I come from Michigan, so no one had told me the importance of keeping the place aired out and dry so that mold doesn't grow everywhere. And no one told me the proper care of a futon (how you are not supposed to leave it on the ground all the time because mold will grow under it).
How was I supposed to know that stuff?
Anyway, I'll try and make some of that up to you by giving you a good deal on any stuff I leave behind,but I guess all I can really say is sorry.

Social Life
The first 6 monthes I was here I did spend a lot of time on my own. Afterwards I began to make connections, and really from that point on I felt like I've led a pretty busy social life.
One way to avoid isolation is to plug into the JET community. When you arrive in July, there will be a whole lot of other 1st year JETs in the same boat, and you can exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses and once you get a car (did I mention you'll probably want to get a car?) you'll be able to meet up with them all the time.
But of course you're not coming to Japan to hang out with other JETs only, right? You want to make Japanese friends and plug into the local community.
That is going to be a bit more difficult, but here's some advice.
1). You can join a lot of clubs in Ajimu. My first year here I joined the local tug of war team, the local volleyball team, and the Ajimu choir. I wasn't even interested in any of these activities per se, but it was a great way just to meet people. Once I felt my social life had picked up enough, I gradually dropped out of stuff.
2). Do an adult English conversation class sometime during the week. I do one on Wednesday night, and if you're interested in picking it up, I'll help to arrange a smooth transition. Some of the other young people in Ajimu who you might not otherwise meet might come to this class.
3). But to be perfectly honest, most of my Japanese friends either come from Usa or Oita. Ajimu just doesn't have that many young people in it. There is a once a week Japanese club on Thursday nights in Oita city, taught by Japanese volunteers, mostly around our age. It is an hour drive there and an hour drive back, so a bit much on a weeknight admittedly, but I've made a lot of great friends there. If your interested, Aaron occasionaly goes sometimes, and he can tell you how to get there.
Also my friend Eion in Usa does an English conversation class, which has turned into a social club. Eion is a 3rd year like me, and so will be gone when you get here, but I imagine someone will pick up the class. You can ask to go in and help teach. Lots of young people at this class.
4). The people you work with. There are some young teachers around your age in the schools. They won't make the first invitation, but if you initiate something, like ask them if they would like to go to out for Yakiniku or Karaoke some time after work, most of them will be happy to do so. But they won't make the first invitation, remember that.

Oh, right, the car, I almost forgot. The system in Japan is a bit odd. Cars are actually relatively cheap, but tax, maintence, and insurance are where the expenses come in. Every two years a car in Japan has to undergo a "Shaken" during which everything on it is fixed, and it is certified to be road worthy. For a second hand car, the Shaken will often be more expensive than the car itself, so the sticker price only is a bit decieving. How much time the car has left on it before it needs to get a new "Shaken" is an important question in Japan.
I paid 150,000 Yen for my car, and then the same price two years later to get the Shaken renewed. Although I suppose my car is bit nicer than many of the cars ALTs drive. 100,000 for a car should be about average, and the same for the Shaken.

Okay, whew, that is everything I can think of for now. You’re probably just as sick of reading this as I am of typing it. If I think of anything else (and I know as soon as I hit the send button I’m going to think of something I should have included), I’ll e-mail it later. In the meantime keep the questions coming as they come up.