Monday, February 28, 2005

Listening Tests and Me
This week the students are taking tests. The English tests all consist of a listening component, and so my role as the local native speaker is to help make the listening tapes. Since my Japanese colleagues are busy during the day, it means staying late after school. Since last week was planning for the home stay exchange, and the week before was helping the students get ready for High School entrance exams, this is the 3rd week in a row I’ve been asked to stay late at school.

Not that I mind all that much. My social calendar is pretty free actually, and besides as the Assistant English Teacher I’m pretty spoiled anyway. Most days I leave at 4:30 whilst my Japanese co-workers stay at school until 8 or 9.

But what is somewhat frustrating is the fact that I have nothing to do all day while the students are taking their tests. So I sit in my desk all day studying Japanese or reading a paperback and watching the clock slowly tick by, and then when I’m supposed to go home I have to stay late after school to make the listening tapes. I know that it is just the way the scheduling works out, but it really seems like a waste

Yesterday I was at school till 7 PM making a tape, and then shortly after I left, I got a call saying they needed me to come back to school. It appears that when we made the tape, we had used the word “walk” in one of the sentences, but the 7th grade students haven’t learned that word yet, so we had to redo it and change the word to “run.” I thought this was somewhat ironic.

“So the students have learned ‘run’ but they haven’t learned ‘walk’?” I asked. My Japanese co-teacher nodded. “That’s funny. In English we have a saying, ‘You have to learn to walk before you can run’.”

Getting no reaction, I explained further, “But these students have learned run, but not walk.”

“That’s because the word ‘walk’ is very hard for the students to pronounce.”

“Yes, but I just think it’s funny because…Oh, never mind.” I spend my days making a lot of bad jokes like this, but sometimes humor doesn’t translate across cultures very well.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Bush and Drug Use
I’m sure by now everyone has heard about these tapes, in which President Bush all but admits he has used drugs in the past. And I’m sure everyone has noticed that the right, which loved to condemn Clinton’s past, has been strangely slow to condemn Bush on this issue.

The double standard for liberal politicians is an issue that never ceases to infuriate me. I’m reminded of a couple articles I wrote for Chimes, one on Bush’s drug use, the other on the furor over Jesse Jackson’s affair.

I’ve linked to these articles before, so I hope I’ll be forgiven for this. I know it is bad form to cite oneself, and certainly bad form to repeatedly cite oneself. But it is much easier to link to myself than to repeat myself, which is what I’d end up doing otherwise.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Japanese Music and Me
Like everyone who comes to Japan, I’ve taken an interest in Japanese music and have made a hobby out of trying to find cool songs and cool groups.

The problem with Japanese music is that so much of it is crap. But with a little digging you can find cool stuff. In Japan, as in America, I’ve taken an interest in the oldies.

Oldies are relatively easy to get into in Japan for a number of reasons. For one you can rent CDs in Japan at video rental shops. So it’s a very cheap way to build up a music collection. Secondly, Mini-Discs are very popular in Japan. I understand they haven’t really taken off yet in America. But it’s a very easy way to copy CDs without having to buy a CD burner. Just a normal stereo will usually allow you to copy from CD to MD.

And thirdly, there is a series of CDs in Japan that chronicle the best hits of every year. It’s not terribly consistent. For instance, during the 1950s there is only a “greatest hits of the 50s” CD set available. From 1960 on, every single year has a two CD album, giving the best 30 hits of that year. And then from 1970 on, a bonus CD is also available, giving another 20 songs. So from 1970 on you can collect the top 50 songs of every year. And then the collection stops at 1990, I suspect because the rights for newer songs are more expensive. Although, just as with the 50s, there is a “greatest hits of the 1990s” CD set available.

It took me a bit of time, and a small amount of money, but during my second year in Japan I went to the video rental store every week and rented, year by year, all the collections of old songs. I then copied them onto MDs back at my place. I even rented all the bonus CDs with extra songs on them. And now I have a music collection that is the envy of…..

Well, no one really. I think it it’s pretty cool that I have the top 50 Japanese songs from any given year at my finger tips, but no one else I’ve met seems to be that impressed by it. I’ve often told my friends, “You can do it too. With just a little bit of time and dedication, and a lot of blank MDs, you can build up the same collection by going through all the years at the CD rental shop.” No one has yet expressed any interest in following in my footsteps.

Most of the time I just use my collection as material for mixed tapes. I comb through it looking for catchy songs that I put on a tape to listen to in the car. Sometimes I’ll go through and listen to all the years in order. It takes me about 2 months to get through the collection, but it’s a fun journey. It’s cool to hear the music culture progress.

The music from the 1950s sounds really old. I mean it is really old, but you can hear the static off of it a lot more than songs from the same period in the US. Japanese music is pretty consistently a few years behind the US in any given period. In the 1950s there are a lot of songs like, “Tokyo Boogie Woogie”.

The early 60s were the heyday of Sakamoto Kyu, whose most famous song, “Ue o muite aruko” (known as “The Sukiyaki Song” in the US), was the only Japanese song to ever make number one on the US pop charts. In fact to my mind the only Japanese song to chart in the US period. It’s a tremendous culture achievement that the Japanese are still very proud off.

In the late 60s was the time of the “Group Sounds” as they are known in Japan. A bunch of British invasion imitation garage rock bands. There are some catchy songs from this period. Nothing that broke the US charts, but “The Spiders” had a hit, “Sad Sunrise” that charted briefly in Britain.

The late 60s to mid 70s were a big folk music scene in Japan. And it’s actually pretty good. It’s sort of electric folk, more in the tradition of Paul Simon than Bob Dylan, but really a lot of it is quite good and in my opinion superior to the folk music from the US during the same period.

By the 1980s much of it is crap. I copied the 1980s CDs just for the sake of completeness for my collection. There are a few good songs in the 1980s CDs if you comb through them enough times. I rescued a few songs for my mixed tapes.

There are occasionally covers of Western music, which are fun mostly for their camp value. My particular favorites are the Japanese versions of “Rawhide” (#15 on the Japanese charts in 1960), “Tie me Kangaroo Down Sport” (#19 in 1963), and “Locomotion” (#29 in 1962).

And then there in any given year there is always Enka. Enka has been called “Japanese Soul” or “Japanese blues”, the idea being that it is distinctively ethnic Japanese music like Soul or Blues was once distinctively African American music. The most common description, and one I tend to agree with, is that Enka is “Japanese Country.” In the sense that it is popular in rural areas, in that old people love it and young people hate it, and in that it is always popular and always on the charts but the sound never seems to evolve from year to year, Enka is perhaps most similar to Country music.

Of course all of these descriptions are based on Enka’s place in Japanese culture, and not the sound of the music itself. It is always difficult to describe a musical sound with words, but the best description I can give is to imagine traditional Japanese music fused with the big band sound of the 1920s. I’m told Enka actually originated in the 1920s, and that before it degenerated into sappy love songs, it was actually a form of protest against the imperialist government of the time. But that’s in the past. Just as country music in the US, Enka is only sad love songs today. Japanese young people hate it, but many foreign people, including myself, find ourselves strangely drawn to the distinctively Asian sound, which, if one can forgive the sometimes over the top big band sound, has a sort of mystic beauty to it.

The most interesting thing about exploring Japanese music is learning that there was a whole world of music out there I didn’t even know about. I think it is one of those truths we all know but sometimes don’t think about, that there is more out there than American culture. I knew many people in college who might resemble the record store music snobs in “High Fidelity”, and prided themselves in their knowledge of American (and British invasion) music. But sometimes we forget just how much music is out there. After listening to Japanese music, I’m now curious, what were the top songs in India in 1976? What were people listening to in France in 1967? Or in Israel, or South Korea, or West Germany? Imagine all the good music out there that we’ll probably never hear.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Even in Japan
Unfortunately I don’t believe it’s available online, but while I was in Oita one of my friends wrote an article for the Tombo Times (the local English publication) entitled “Even in Japan.” The premise of the article is that we often tend to focus on the differences between our home countries and Japan, but many of the same bizarreness exists in both of them. Japan, just as in America, has its nuts, its political extremists, its culture wars, and former pro-wrestlers being elected to public office. So instead of saying, “Only in Japan,” we could just as well say, “Even in Japan.”

And although Japan is famous for having a well-structured society, even in Japan there are homeless people and people who approach you on the street for money. In the past two weeks I have been approached for money twice, which is surprising for me because up until now it has never happened to me in Japan even once.

When I related the incident to Shoko, she theorized that since a native person was very unlikely to give hand outs to homeless people on the street, perhaps the homeless have learned to approach foreigners instead. That would explain why in a crowded train station an elderly man speaking absolutely no English would single me out as the one person he asked for money.

As I’m sure many of you also have, I’ve learned the hard way it’s not smart to give out cash on the street. At first I was young and idealistic and thought it was my Christian duty to give out money to anyone in need, but I stopped doing that after I twice gave out a significant amount of money to someone, and then realized the story (usually about desperately needing food for a family) was completely false. I know many of you have had similar experiences, especially Phil Christman, if he’s reading this.

So back in America I’ve developed a policy of never giving out cash, but offering to buy food for anyone who needs it. This usually works pretty well. I once had someone approach me in Grand Rapids for money. I offered to give him the food I had with, and he said he didn’t want it. I then offered to drive him to the supermarket, and at that point he said, “Look, I’ll be honest, I just want a drink.” After that I decided I would definatelynever just give out cash again.

An old women approached me in an outdoor shopping mall in down town Gifu last week. As with the old man in the train station, she zeroed in on me even though she couldn’t speak any English and I was the only foreigner in a crowded area. “I haven’t had anything to eat for three days,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to die.”

“Let’s buy you some food then,” I said.

“Just give me money,” she answered. Remembering my experiences back in America, I was reluctant to do this. I told her I wasn’t going to give her money, but I’d buy her food. She said that her home was far away from here, and that it was not Japanese custom to eat on the sidewalk, so money would be more convenient for her. We argued about this for a little while, but I stuck rigidly to my principle. After a while she gave in, and bought a few things at the nearby food store, and I paid for it.

We parted company, but she later chased me down again. This time she desperately needed food for her cat, and wanted money. Again I refused to give over cash, so we walked to a convenience store nearby to get her cat food. She picked up some other items while we were there, and I said it was okay.

Then we got to the counter, and she asked the girl behind the counter for a packet of cigarettes. I told the girl to put them back. The lady instructed the girl that it was okay, and to ring up the cigarettes as well. When I said I wouldn’t pay for the cigarettes a small argument broke out, much to the confusion of the poor girl behind the counter.

I insisted cigarettes were unhealthy and so I wouldn’t buy them. However earlier in that evening I had been to that same convenience store, and had bought a candy bar and a coke from the same girl behind the counter. So I was feeling slightly like a hypocrite. Of course in my mind cigarettes are worse, but that’s a value judgment I guess. And if I had decided to treat myself to chocolate and cola, who was I decide that this lady was to be forbidden cigarettes.

In the end I held firm. The lady changed her story a couple times. She said the cigarettes were for an old man, who was near death and his only pleasure was cigarettes. I said if he was near death he shouldn’t be smoking, and she said he was perfectly healthy but he was so old it doesn’t make a difference now.

It was sad to see an elderly lady lying like a child. But was I the one who reduced to her to it? Was I some punk on a power trip, reducing this lady, who was old enough to be my grandmother, into pleading with me? Because I was fortunate enough to have money, was I empowered to make her decisions for her? I’m still not sure I did the right thing. She thanked me for buying her food, and then as I was leaving yelled that I was a bully.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

In the summer of 2000 I went to Philadelphia to protest the Republican National Convention. Since I had no lodging, I stayed at the local YMCA with other people in the same situation, which included a colorful group of anarchists.

Well we were all anarchists. I was an anarchist as far as political theory went, but these kids had the whole costume down. The red and black flags, the black clothing, complete with the black mask and only a slit in for the eyes.

They were a nice group of kids. Perhaps a bit on the paranoid side. At a rally early in the week they were passing out leaflets explaining Anarchist theory. One of them approached me. I recognized him through the mask. “Hey how’s it going?” I asked him.

“You don’t know me,” he said defensively.

“It’s me,” I said. “I’m staying in the same room as you guys in the Y.”

“No, you don’t know me,” he said, stressing his words this time. I let it go at that.”

Shortly afterwards a bit of a scene broke out. A Republican delegate had come out of the building to try and argue with the protesters. Of course the rank and file delegates to the convention were just ordinary people, and through out the week sometimes they would try and talk to the protesters to convince us that they weren’t really bad folks. And some of them actually did a decent job at it. I met some Republican delegates I respected. But some of them just wanted to preach at us, and didn’t want to listen, and this guy was one of them.

Both sides were in full costume. This guy was a middle age white man in a suit and tie. And the anarchists were as I’ve already described them. It wasn’t hard to tell which one was the delegate and which ones were the protesters. He was shouting something about the values of democracy, and the anarchists were taking the bait by standing around and trying to debate him.

“Democracy is the best system in the world,” he said.

“We don’t live in a democracy,” one of the anarchists said.

“What? Yes we do. What are you talking about?”

“This is an oligarchy.”

“Ancient Greece was a democracy.”

At this point he just threw his hands up. “Oh come on. Don’t start bringing Ancient Greece into this.” He turned around as if to walk away in disgust, and then turned back to briefly admonish them one more time, “look, all I’m saying is don’t be destructive out there today. Don’t be violent.” The anarchists just murmured with their heads down, seeming to be disappointed that he had cut off the debate. He turned around and walked away.

Of course the ironic thing about this story is in November Bush lost the popular vote but won the election. A lot of people thought this was unfair, and the newspaper columns and AM radio stations were filled with right wing pundits saying, “Geez, didn’t these people ever pass an 8th grade civics class? Every idiot knows we don’t live in a democracy. Democracy was in ancient Greece. We live in a republic, which has checks and balances on the whims of mob rule. How dumb are these people? Where did they ever get the idea we live in a democracy? Etc etc etc.”

The moral is that democracy is one of the most abused words in our modern political discourse. Politicians and right wingers love to use it for it’s positive connotations, but if you try and suggest any true democratic reforms see how quickly you get shouted down.
Ironically Bush, whose election in 2000 is now the current textbook example proving that we live in a republic, not a democracy, has been one of the worst abusers of the word. With all the talk about “democracy” in Iraq, or in the Middle East, it’s important to remember what democracy really means. And for true examples of democracy, it is good to read about the Paris Commune, or the anarchist communities in Spain during the 1930s. The United States, for all its rhetoric, has never been a democracy.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Some Interesting Quotes
I’ve been doing some reading lately and come across some interesting quotes.

The first one is “Future Tense: The Coming World Order” by Gwynne Dyer. The quote is from George Bush Sr. in his 1988 book “A World Transformed” (as quoted by Dyer on page 221). “Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq…would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. …We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. There was no viable ‘exit strategy’ we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish.”

The second quote is Dick Cheney in 1991, then Bush Sr.’s Secretary of Defense, as quoted in “War and the American Presidency” by Arthur Schlesinger. “Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what kind of government you would put it….How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military….To have American military forces engaged in a civil war inside Iraq would fit the definition of a quagmire, and we have absolutely no desire to get bogged down in that fashion.”

I think you’ll agree that it’s hard to believe these words are by the same people who told us that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Conversations at the Sushi Bar
This past Friday after I finished Japanese class, me and the 3 other students were talking about what to do next. Someone suggested going out for sushi. It sounded like a good idea to all, but the catch was that I was the only one with a car.

I’m not driving the same car I used to have back in Oita. I sold that one to my successor, Josh. Instead I am now driving a car provided by the company. Hard to complain about a free car, but it is not the biggest car in the world. In fact, it is what is referred to in Japan as a “K-car”, or miniature car.

“Is there enough room in your car?” someone asked.

“Well, technically there are four seats in the car, but it is going to be a squeeze fitting everyone in. Look, I’m in the driver’s seat,” I explained. “So I’ll have plenty of room either way. If you guys want to try and cram in the other 3 seats, you’re welcome to try, but it will be cramped with 4 people in that car. I mean, it’s cramped with just one person in that car.”

“Yeah, how do you even fit in that car,” someone said, eyeing the car and then eyeing me.

“It’s a squeeze,” I admitted.

“I hope you’re not offended by this,” someone else said, “but have you ever seen that episode of ‘The Simpsons’…”

“I know where what you’re going to say,” I said, but she continued anyway.

“…where there is the really tall guy in the really small car, and everyone makes fun of him.”

“Yes, I have seen that episode. In fact I think about it every time I get into this car, and wonder if I’ve become that guy,” I answered truthfully.

I miss Mike. Last year Mike Harris was the other teacher with me in Ajimu. Whenever I got too much flack about being a tall awkward white guy in Japan, I’d just point to Mike. He was even taller than I was.

We all fit in the car. And it was a cramped ride. Not so much for me. I was in the driver’s seat. But the others put up with it well.

I was the only non-JET in the group. The other 3 were all teachers on the JET program, and not so happy about having been placed in Gifu. One girl in particular seemed very bitter about it. “Even in ‘The Lonely Planet’ guide book it says to stay away from Gifu,” she asserted.

“Does it really?” I asked.

“It says southern Gifu especially has absolutely nothing worthwhile in it, and everyone should stay away from it.”

“No it doesn’t,” someone else responded.

She shrugged. “Well, not in so many words, but that’s the essential message. After all Gifu is the most polluted part of Japan.”

“You mean Gifu city or Gifu prefecture,” I asked

“The whole Nagoya-Gifu area,” she said. “A few years back they past a law in Tokyo that you couldn’t have dangerous chemicals in residential areas, so all the companies just moved down to Nagoya where there weren’t any regulations.”

I had noticed that I seemed to get tired more often since moving to Gifu, and wondered if there was any connection. I thought about saying something, but decided against it. I suspected it might all be in my head, or maybe a product of the awful school lunches.

“What was Kyushu like?” she asked.

“It was really beautiful,” I said. “I really miss it.” And I do miss it some days. But in Oita prefecture there are just as many JETs who are unhappy with their placements, and wish they were in some more central area. I guess no matter where you are, you always wish you were somewhere else.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Home Stay Blues
As I wrote recently, my junior high school will be hosting a group of junior high school students from California for one week near the end of March. The past couple weeks I have had to stay after school for a couple of long meetings concerning this exchange.

Although I was involved in some exchanges back in Oita, this is the first time I’ve been involved in the planning stages (as opposed to just showing up and helping to guide). I wish it didn’t bite into my personal time quite so much, but it is interesting to see how this works from the Japanese side.

For instance, all the kids who are coming from California sent over little forms containing important information about themselves, and a picture. Pictures are always included on any application form in Japan, but I guess we Americans don’t take it quite as seriously. Many of the photos, as you can probably imagine from junior high kids, were of poor quality, or the kids had hats on, or one girl just photo-copied her student ID and sent that as her picture. One of my Japanese colleagues was looking at the pictures with disgust and saying, “Look at this! Is this how they introduce themselves to us? This is just how Americans do things. Everything is so half-assed.” And then, remembering I was in the room, she suddenly turned and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Another area of concern seems to be bringing candy to school. Apparently in the past some of the American kids brought candy and sodas to school for a snack (as we Americans are wont to do when we get hungry). In Japan absolutely no candy or sweets are allowed on school grounds, so one of the teachers was complaining about how Americans bring candy to Japanese schools. “In America we’re allowed to take snacks to school,” I said. “We eat them at snack time.”

“But this is Japan,” he answered.

I tried to explain that the American kids didn’t know the Japanese rules. Another teacher mentioned that the previous American Assistant English Teacher, the person who held my position before me, once even chewed gum at the school. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said

“If you don’t want to learn the rules of another country, then you shouldn’t come here,” the teacher said.

Another thing is all these long meetings. When I was in 11th grade my family hosted a Japanese exchange student for a week, the same length of time that these California kids are coming. As far as I can remember we just picked the Japanese student up from school. I don’t remember sitting through long meetings about what to do and not to do with him. But yesterday we had a two-hour meeting with all the students who are hosting American children, and their parents as well. I guess it is just the Japanese characteristic of making sure every little detail is ironed out, and things go smoothly.

The meeting went on forever. First someone gave the aforementioned teacher gave a speech about the importance of not letting these Americans bring candy to school. Then there were all sorts of questions, like, what do we do if the American kid gets sick. The answer given was basically, take them to the hospital just like you would do for your own kid, but it took a long time to say.

One area of contention was the plan for Friday morning on the last day of school. It is the closing ceremony for the junior high school, and it was requested that the American students just stay at their host families for the day. A couple of the women objected. “My husband and I both have to work. My daughter is going to be at school for the closing ceremony. Who is going to look after the American student?”

A couple different plans were presented. “You’re daughter can come straight home after school. The American will only be alone for a little bit. In the meantime, the American student can spend time with the grandparents.”

The objections persisted. “My parents won’t know what to do with an American student,” the mother said. “Couldn’t they just come to school for that day?”

“The closing ceremonies are a very important time,” one of the teachers answered. “We don’t want a bunch of Americans making noise and messing it up.”

“It will be good for the American students to spend time with the grandparents,” another teacher said. “They can learn about Japanese culture from them. That’s why they are coming to Japan after all.”

Also at issue was space. Not enough homes for all the incoming students. At one point they wanted to put someone in with me. A chaperone, not a student, but still. I mean I wouldn’t have minded all that much, but can you imagine someone coming all the way from California expecting to do a home stay with a Japanese family and then getting stuck in my apartment with me? I brought up the point that I only have bedding for one, but said if someone else could provide an extra futon it wouldn’t be a problem. I think in the end they found another spot for him, but I will definitely keep you updated if I do get stuck with some one.

That night I went out with a Canadian friend, and he laughed at my stories. He had a similar experience when a group of Canadian Junior High school students did a brief visit in his town. “I have never been so ashamed to be a Canadian,” he told me. “After seeing all the work my town put into hosting this exchange, and then to see the way the kids were so disrespectful, I just wanted to kill them. They were doing things that Japanese kid would never have done. Japanese kids would never have been that rude.”

The same might apply to Americans. Obviously I’ve never met these kids who are coming. I don’t know them from Adam (or Eve). But it’s not too hard to imagine, is it? May be that is why my town is so concerned about keeping them under control.
Valentines Day in Japan
Okay, obviously this one is a bit late, but you know how it goes.

Last week Monday was of course Valentines Day. I’ve written about this in year’s past, but Valentines Day is interesting in Japan. It’s almost the opposite of the US in the sense that the women are responsible for giving gifts to the men. (How did the Japanese men pull that one off? Geniuses they are.)

The traditional gift is chocolate. Some of my fellow teachers were predicting that since they thought I was quite popular with the students, I would be getting a lot of chocolate on Valentines.

I didn’t get anything. Not one bit of chocolate. Not to worry though; I’m taking it pretty well. I try not to base my self worth on how popular I am with Junior High School students.

I did help a young student in love get chocolate from a girl he was keen on, and in that respect I feel like it was a victory for us both. It was after school when all the students were going home. I was outside with the other teachers seeing the students off. A group of boys were standing around trying to encourage their friend. “Go on, talk to her. Talk to her.”

“It’s too late,” he replied. “Look, she’s leaving already.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Tanaka,” someone else answered.

I shouted out at the girls leaving, “Tanaka! Stop!” When Tanaka stopped, I pushed the boy forward. “Go over, talk to her.”

Perhaps it was a bit unprofessional on my part. It was the kind of thing I would do to embarrass a friend back in University, but perhaps not the kind of thing a teacher should do to a student. I just did it without thinking. On the other hand, all is well that ends well, and the boy returned with a broad smile on his face and a package of chocolate from Tanaka. Besides, the young lad in question, despite his momentary shyness, is actually pretty outgoing and popular with the girls, which was one of the reasons I did it. I would never have done that to a socially awkward student.

Along the same lines I recently helped a Canadian friend of mine hook up with the girl of his fancy. Actually I really didn’t do that much. He liked a waitress at a certain restaurant, so all I did was accompany him to that restaurant and then slip out the door while the bill was being paid so he could ask her out. Truth be told I had an ulterior motivation for leaving early and letting him pay the bill. But just the same I thought I had played my part well. We were walking back to the car afterwards, congratulating each other on how smoothly the whole operation had gone, and then he said, “By the way, what did you do with those CDs I gave you?”

And I was like, “Oh fuck, I left them in the restaurant.” And so we had to go back into the restaurant, and it somewhat ruined the smooth note we had exited on originally. But the important thing is he got he asked her out.

If anyone else has any love problems, let me know. I’m on a roll lately.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Job Available
The fellow in the town next to me is an Assistant English Teacher who works only at the pre-schools. It’s a bit of an odd position because he works directly for the town. He’s not employed by the JET program, or by a private company like I am. Because it is a small town, apparently there is no huge recruitment operation to fill this English Teacher position. They just relay on the current English teacher to recommend a successor.

Anyway, he doesn’t have anyone in mind yet, so he has asked me to see if I know anyone who is interested. The big benefit is that you’ll only be one town over from me. Obviously if you like little kids, it would be a plus. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll pass your name on to this fellow and put in a good word for you. No guarantees obviously.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

I attend yet another Ceremony
Yesterday I had to go to a ceremony at the Elementary school. It was a ceremony to honor everyone who had helped out at the Elementary school over the course of the year. I was up on stage with the local policemen, the fire department, the librarian, and the lady who serves tea in the office. I got a bouquet of flowers, which was a nice gesture, but I thought what I’m sure all of you think every time you get flowers. “Oh, great. What am I going to do with these things? They’re just going to rot in my sink.”

I started thinking that since I’ve arrived in Japan, I’ve been up on stages and in front of crowds introducing myself numerous times. And yet it some weird way, since it is in Japan it doesn’t seem to really count. For one thing I guess I’m not being honored for my achievements so much as I am for just being an American, so in that respect it is different than being back home. But also for some reason it doesn’t seem real because it is in Japan. When I come back to the United States, if I ever have to get up on a stage in front of a crowd of people, I won’t think to myself, “No big deal, I’ve done this hundreds of times in Japan.” There is something about being up in front of your peers that makes you more nervous than being on stage in a foreign country, at least for me.

Case in point I guess is last year I did a presentation at the Assistant English Teachers conference on teaching about Global Issues in the Classroom. It wasn’t even a presentation so much as it was a workshop, with only a handful of other ex-pat teachers in the room, and yet I was more nervous than any time I’ve been on the stage in Japan.

Although my favorite story, which I’ve told many times before, is when I first arrived in Ajimu, Ryan and I and a student from the local international university were asked to be on a panel discussion about internationalization in Ajimu. And were asked all sorts of questions like, “What can Ajimu do to improve internationalization?” And all of us had only been in the town a few days. It was ridiculous. We did our best to just bullshit our way through it and give answers that sound impressive.
Pen Pal Blues

Monika, the other English Teacher in my town, is very much the opposite of me. In fact if you were to stereo type us, one of us would be super English Teacher who is always up late at night creating wonderful lessons, and the other would be a slacker who puts in the bear minimum to get by.
Monika’s been all over the web lately arranging exchange programs with other classes all over the world. However since Monika teachers at the elementary schools only, and formal English education doesn't start until Junior High School, she is limited in what she can do to mostly exchanging pictures and videos.
So, when Monika got a bunch of English letters from a fourth grade class in Israel, she passed them onto me. This worked out well for everyone. Monika was able to pass on the letters, the kids in Israel were able to get a reply, and at my school I was able to present the idea of a pen-pal exchange with Israel as my own idea, and thus impress my Japanese colleagues with how hard I was working setting the whole thing up. So I guess you could say it was really a good deal for me.
Of course these things are never without their hitches. Below is part of the e-mail I sent to the teacher in Israel describing how things went:

Hello. My name is Joel Swagman. I assume Monika has told you about me. I am the other Assistant English Teacher in the town of Godo, in Japan.

As I'm sure Monika has told you, the English education system in Japan is a bit slow. Students do not start learning English until seventh grade. Since Monika only works in the Elementary schools, it would not be possible for her students to write a response to your class. So your message was forwarded to me. My 9th grade students are about on the same English level as your 4th grade students, as I'm sure you'll see by reading the replies.

Despite the age difference, many of my students were very excited about writing back to your students, and many of the girls especially were very excited about seeing the photos and thought your students were very cute and wanted to write to them. Unfortunately the timing has not worked out well. As an assistant teacher, the only class I have control over is the elective class, and that meets only once a week, and is frequently canceled. Therefore it was two weeks from the time Monika forwarded your message to me until the time I had an opportunity to write back. I apologize for the delay.

The other unfortunate thing about the timing is my 9th grade students will soon be graduating. The Japanese school year ends in March. In fact today was the last time the elective class will meet. If your class would like to send replies to this batch of letters (and many of my students would love it if they did) I will be able to make sure my students receive them. However, as my students will be graduating, I can no longer make them write any more letters, and any future letters they write would be on their own initiative. To that end I gave my students the option of writing either their e-mail address or street address on their letters. Some did, some didn't. Either way any letters you send to me I can make sure that they receive.

Again I apologize about the timing. Perhaps when the new school year starts in April we could start more correspondence, if your students don't mind having new partners. Another unfortunate timing issue: today many of my students were out of the class taking tests, so in order to make sure everyone of your students got a response, I had some of my students write two letters. Then, halfway through class, some of the students who were taking tests returned to class and wanted to write letters. So I took the letters from some students who had already finished, and gave them to the students who were just arriving. This accounts for the bizarre situation where some of your students have two letters from two different people, and other students will share the same pen-pal. My apologies.

My students did not have computer access, so I retyped the letters myself. I did my best to avoid correcting their grammar, and for the most part left it as it was. The only thing I inserted was a reference to gender in cases where it wasn't clear, in case your students may be unfamiliar with Japanese names. I should mention that a number of the names of your students I could not tell the gender on, and did made my best guesses.

As many of your students made reference to Israeli pop culture, so many of my students did with Japanese pop culture. I hope this doesn't cause any confusion. I look forward to hearing back from you,
Bork wrote a really interesting post recently about the linguistically problems posed for using language as decoration, such as when Americans get tattoos in Kanji, or when Japanese people use English without regard to meaning. I don’t have much to add to it except that, being in Japan, I’m obviously a lot more familiar with the latter than I am with the former.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

As usual I'm throwing a bunch of diverse subjects under the same blog posting. I guess you're used to that by now.

I screw up singing performance
Graduation is still a month off, but last week we had a special ceremony last week in which all the younger students sang to the 9th grade students, and then the teachers sing to the 9th grade students, and then the 9th grade students sing back to the rest of the school. It's supposed to be a real moving performance, and the some of the other teachers were upset that the 9th grade students didn't take it seriously enough.

And I'm afraid I didn't help. The teachers were practicing their song after school, and I couldn't be bothered to stay after school to practice them. Not that I don't ever stay after school. In fact I've been doing that quite frequently lately (we'll come to that shortly), but no one gives me advanced notice on these things. So I've got all my books packed up and I'm heading out the door and totally in my "I'm going home" mood, and then someone will say, "Oh, Joel, we're practicing our singing this afternoon. Do you want to stay for it?" And I'll just say I was kind of going home, and besides I have Japanese class in the evenings (which is true) so I just said I'll sit the singing performance out.

But, when the actual day came, the vice-principal thought it was important that I should be standing up with the other teachers even if I couldn't sing the song. The students were very excited to see me take the stage. What can I say, it's easy to be popular in Japan.

The song was in Japanese, and although other teachers had music with them, I had nothing. So I just sort of mumbled along while trying to look over at another teacher's music. The students were beginning to laugh already at this point. I made eye contact with a few in the front row and just winked or shrugged my shoulders, because it was perfectly obvious that I didn't know what was going on anyway. And then came the part of the song that was accompanied by motions, and I had to look around me to see what motions the other teachers were doing and tried to follow it, and I was always one step behind. And that part just brought the house down. Students were laughing so hard some fell out of their seats. Well, you know Junior High School kids, it's easy to make them laugh.

So, it's nice to be popular. I did worry somewhat that my fellow teachers had been practicing this song for a long time, and I just showed up on the performance day and stole the show. I'm not sure if any of them were resentful of that or not, but like I said they did later chew out the 9th grade students for not taking the singing seriously enough.

Busy at School Lately

This week and next week are entrance examinations for students who want to go to high school. High School is not compulsory education in Japan, and in fact after 9th grade the students all go to different High Schools, which they carefully choose, and then have to take tests to get into. It's somewhat like going to University for us.

One of my students wants to go to a high school that has an English interview for an examination test. So, I've been staying after school last week and this week to practice with her. In fact, last week I ended up post poning my trip to Kyushu by one day because my Japanese colleague wanted me to stay after school and work with this student.

Also, during Spring Break we will be having a group of junior high school students from California here on an exchange program. I've been asked to help out with it, which will cut into my spring break when the time comes, and is also meaning after school meetings now.

I've had a bit of experience doing these exchanges before during my stay in Ajimu. There somewhat fun to do because they allow me to feel important as someone who helps to guide translate. I just wish it didn't cut into my free time so much. Also I'm somewhat worried that, as happened with the Australian Rotary club exchange last year, my presence will be a bit superficial, all the translating will be taken care of by people who are better than me, and I'll just be along for the ride and wasting time.

North Korean Versus Japan Soccer Match

Big sports news here last week was the North Korean Japan soccer match. There is always a lot of tension between Japan and North Korea, and sometimes it is difficult to separate sports and politics. The Japan times had an article to that effect here.

Not many people in Japan like North Korea. And with good reason. Certainly no reasonable person in the world favors the North Korean regime, and Japan has a number of legitimate grievances against North Korea, such as the abduction issue which always gets a lot of press in Japan. But relations between Japan and Korea have been hostile for so long that sometimes it is hard to tell where anti-communism stops and anti-Korean begins. Evidence of this is the attacks on children who attend North Korean schools within Japan.

Of course as I write this I am thinking that currently Japan is in a midst of a Korean boom, where all things South Korean are extremely popular. So things are complicated of course, and to go into all the nuances would take a lot of writing, and then I'm no expert anyway.

But I went into a bar with some ex-pat friends to watch the game, and it seemed to us that all the Japanese people there were a little too excited to beat North Korea. I briefly pretended I was cheering for North Korea, and no one laughed at that joke.

Even among the ex-patriots things were a bit tense. The next game Japan has to play to qualify for the world cup is against Iran, and one of my friends joked Japan was taking on the axis of evil one by one. At this point another American angrily said it was about soccer, not politics, and it seemed at the time that a fight was close and only adverted by my friend repeatedly apologizing.

Although, since bars are places that are famous for people fighting for no reason, perhaps this story proves nothing.

Media Mouse Starts On-line Book Review Section
Which you can read about here. And apparently they're looking for submissions, if anyone feels like writing.

Perhaps it would be unfair for me to take credit for this, but I did suggest it to them a long time ago. It was just after I came to Japan, and I was looking for ways to stay politically active from abroad. Media Mouse was redoing their website, and I said I could write up some book reviews if they wanted to post them. I sent over a few reviews, but shortly after September 11th happened, and everyone's priorities started to change and suddenly those reviews didn't seem so important anymore.

At any rate, given what kind of book reviews they have posted now, I don't think what I sent over fit their criteria anyway. I reviewed old classics like "1984" and "Les Miserables" and I think they are looking for more recent books and non-fiction.

"Les Miserables" by the way is more of a radical book than people often give it credit, especially since it has become a Broadway musical. But Victor Hugo spent 20 years in exile for defying Napoleon III. His satirical verses on Napoleon III were considered required reading during the Paris Commune. He was later expelled for sheltering some of the Commune revolutionaries.

And the most famous figure from the Paris Commune, Louise Michel, even took to calling herself Enjolras, after the character in "Les Miserables."

Monday, February 14, 2005

Me on the Internet
Perhaps you were just thinking to yourself, "I don't have enough of Joel Swagman in my life." A while back I linked to this Media Mouse video we made about the FTAA protests in Quebec in 2001, which includes some video footage I filmed, as well as a brief appearance by me participating in a round table discussion.

Well, I've also stumbled across this "Breaking the Bank" video of the 2000 IMF/ World Bank protest in Washington DC. I'm not familiar with the group that put this video together, but at least some of them must have been at the same intersection I was during this protest, because a lot of the footage for the video comes from that intersection. I even make a brief appearance for a second or two. Click on "Breaking the Bank Part 2", and then go to 26:04 into the piece. I'm a bit in the back ground, but I'm easy to pick out. This was during my long hair phase, I'm wearing a white shirt, a red bandanna, and I have my glasses on and I'm on the left.

A few seconds later there's a shot of people standing up and cheering, in which a couple of my friends from Calvin, who I went to the protest with, are visible. I'll try to use good internet etiquette by not using full names, but if you know who Sean and Bytie are, you should be able to pick them out pretty clearly.

I guess on one hand it is kind of pathetic that I'm so full of myself I find the need to link to every on line video where I'm even briefly visible. On the other hand, my 2.5 seconds of fame aside, both videos are well done, informative and do a good job presenting some of the issues of global capitalism and the exploitation of 3rd world workers. (Since someone else did the hard work of editing the Media Mouse video, I can say this without conceit). If you have the time, both videos would probably be worth watching.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Back to Kyushu for the Weekend

But before I get started on that, a quick link to an article at the Japan Times about how all the English teachers returned safely from the Tsunami. I've talked about this issue before, so this might be over kill, but this goes into more detail than the previous article I linked to. I like it because it confirms what I noted antidotally on this weblog, that there were a lot of English Teachers from Japan in Thailand during the holidays, and it is a miracle everyone returned safely. I also find interesting the theory that perhaps the reason no vacationing English teachers were killed is because their pursuit of sex and drugs led them away from the beaches and into the big cities.

Anyway, this Friday was a public holiday in Japan so we had a 3 day weekend. I made use of the time by going back to Oita in Kyushu for the weekend. It's only the second time I've been back since I changed jobs this September. I had originally thought I'd be back a lot more, but that was before I realized how much time and money it takes to make the trip.

It was about $300 round trip, and about 6 hours on the train. I could have probably gone cheaper and quicker if I would have bought plane tickets in advance but, typical me, I never plan ahead. In fact these long weekends always sneak up on me. One day I'm going about my normal business, and then all of a sudden I realize "There's a 3 day weekend this week and I don't have any plans."

Shoko was of course glad to see me, but because I just showed up suddenly she wasn't able to get the day off of work. At a party on Friday night I overheard her explaining the situation to another friend. "If he gives me a week or so notice, I can take a day off. But when he just calls up and says he's coming down the next day, there's not much I can do."

So well Shoko was working during the day, I did the best I could to meet up with other friends. As with my last visit down to Kyushu (see Oct. 11th blog entry) I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that I now have no car in Kyushu, but I got a few lifts from other people and it all worked out. Life was made slightly more difficult on Saturday when my cell phone got cut off because of unpaid bills, but at least people who know me are used to this kind of thing happening, and were not surprised when I started calling them from public phone booths.

It was great seeing people again, although somewhat reminiscent of my trip home during Christmas break in the sense that I felt like I just got to meet people briefly and then I had to leave again. But I plan on coming back to the area again during Spring Break.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Let's start out today by asking...
How Dumb is Ann Coulter?

I've written before that the ex-patriot community in Japan is rather liberal, so sometimes I forget how popular conservative ideology is back home. I had assumed because Ann Coulter had been so largely discredited, no one would read her anymore. To my dismay, I noticed that every book store I went into still had her books prominently displayed, so there must be people out there who still take her seriously.

Ann Coulter has been completely discredited in almost every venue you can imagine. Just a few small examples are Spin Sanity, of course Al Franken's book (a great read for anyone who hasn't read it already), and then Ann Coulter's responses to Franken's book, which only prove his points (which can be read here). Ann Coulter has been slammed for factual inaccuracy by just about everyone who has reviewed her books. (My favorite review is from the Washington Post, which you can be here.) Indeed, it is probably safe to say that every intelligent person already holds Coulter in contempt, and anyone who still likes her is beyond the grasp of reason. So in that respect I suppose it is pointless to continue to slam her.

But just for fun...
I couldn't resist linking to this, a video in which Ann Coulter claims Canada sent troops to Vietnam, and then argues with the Canadian interviewer who claims otherwise.

Now, consider that this little fact isn't just a bit of trivial pursuit. Canada's lack of involvement in the Vietnam War was part of the reason for the strained relations between Johnson and Trudeau. It was why Trudeau was looked upon by much of the New Left as the only good politician. It is why anti-war protests did not spill over to Canada in the same way they did to other US allies (like Japan or West Germany). In fact, this is why people went to Canada to avoid the draft in the first place. It wouldn't make any sense to go to Canada to avoid the war if Canada was also fighting in Vietnam.

And not only does Ann Coulter seem to mistake this, but is so sure of herself that she argues with the Canadian interviewer. And all this from a woman who is old enough to have lived through the events, who makes her career as a political pundit, and who writes books about how dumb liberals are. Unbelievable.

Speaking of Vietnam, appearently this is making the rounds but if you haven't seen this 1967 news article on reported terrorist efforts to disrupt elections in South Vietnam, it's worth a read, here or here.

Onto other topics...
And we've got snow here in Gifu. Not that we didn't have it before, but we've got a lot of it now.

On my previous blog post I wrote about some of the differences between Oita and Gifu. Add this to the list. Gifu has a lot more snow.

As you can see from both Mike's and Josh's blog, Ajimu apparently has a bit of snow right now as well. Indeed over my 3 years there I saw some snow from time to time. And it was amazing how little snow it took to get things cancelled. We had a snow day once when only the thinnest layer of snow covered the ground. I was supposed to run in a race last year that was cancelled (much to my relief) because just a little bit of snow was in the air.

Now, granted a little bit of snow can cause a lot of havoc in a place like Ajimu. No one has snow plows or snow shovels or even decent snow wear. No one is used to driving on the snow, the car tires are not made for winter driving, and the the fact that Ajimu is surrounded by mountains on all sides makes going anywhere more trouble than it is worth. I wrote last year in the blog that even a little bit of snow caused me to be trapped in the town of Ajimu.

But it is interesting to see the contrast in Gifu. We had so much snow I'm certain it would have been a snow day even by Michigan standards, and yet school went on as normal. Many of the teachers weren't able to drive on the roads, so they either walked to school, biked or took the train. I drove, but I live close to school, and besides consider myself well accustomed to winter driving.

I also learned a lot of words on the play ground today that I never learned in Oita. Like the Japanese words for "snow ball fight", "snowman", "snow fort", and "person who got hit in the face with a snow ball."