Thursday, March 31, 2005

Back in Kyushu Again

It's Spring Break, and I've headed back down to the land of milk and honey for the third time now since I left Oita prefecture in September.

As I've noted on my two previous trips down (here and here), the big issue is transportation. Japan may be a small country, but it is a pain in the neck to go anywhere.

Probably the cheapest and fastest way to get down here is by flying. Of course that requires a bit of advance planning in terms of buying the tickets. So since this is me we are talking about, it is rare that I have my act together enough to buy tickets in advance.

The next cheapest way is to go by bullet train. It takes a few hours longer than the plane, but I figure by the time you spend all the time checking into the plane and then unloading, getting your baggage, etc, it evens out to the same time in the end. The price is roughly the same, and you can buy your tickets the same day.

Because of all the highway tolls, driving is actually the most expensive way to travel in Japan.

However once I get down to Kyushu, I am again plagued by transportation issues. Again, I mentioned this before in previous blogging, but Shoko lives in Hita, all my friends live in the Usa-gun area, and there is no train between them without going all the way to Fukuoka first. (And for those of you back home, just trust me, it's a long way.) In Ajimu, my old town, there's no train station full stop. So it is very convenenient to have a car.

For that reason I was originally planning on driving down. It would have been 12 hours on the road, and in the end have been more expensive than a train or plane ticket, but it would have given me transportation once I got here.

The thing about 12 hours on the road is that it sounds like a good idea from a long ways away, but once the date gets closer and closer, I think to myself, "Do I really want to go 12 hours on the road?" At the last minute, the night before I was supposed to depart, I wimped out and got a train ticket instead.

Even by train still a hell of a trip down. Five hours, for which I was standing most of the time because there were no empty seats. Next time I will get a plane ticket. I'm not looking forward to the return trip.

Anyway, so I'm here now safe and sound, but with no car. Shoko has been kind enough to volunteer to bike to work, and allow me use of her car. I hope I haven't bored everyone to death with a whole entry about transportation logistics. The next entry will be more interesting, I promise.

A quick plug: A while back I wrote an entry here describing how I have good and bad days in Japan. My friend Mike has written a good post here that I think describes accurately the feelings of frustration on a bad day.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Americans are Here

This week we have been hosting a group of American middle school students from California. It has kept me pretty busy recently, and also caused me to delay my Spring Break plans by a couple of days.

I complain, but actually I love it. Having the Americans over has given me a chance to help translate and show off my Japanese. And that’s really the whole reason why I spend hours studying Japanese, just for those few times when I get a chance to show it off.
Having the American students here has also given me an excuse to get out of the 6th grade graduation, the end of the year closing ceremony, the ceremony for departing teachers, and a whole bunch of other boring stuff. And perhaps most importantly it is just a nice break in the routine and gives me something interesting to do for a couple days.

I’m not sure my Japanese colleagues appreciate it all that much though. Who knows, maybe they are like me: complaining on the outside but secretly enjoying it on the inside. But since I can’t read their minds, based on what they say alone I have to conclude they view the whole exchange program as just extra stress on their already busy schedule. There is also a view that the American kids are out of control and undisciplined.
In my opinion that’s unfair. The Middle School kids from America were extremely well behaved. They got a little talkative and loud when they were all together, but it could easily have been a lot worse. On an individual level they were all very concerned about making a good impression on the school and on their host families. In was frequently approached by nervous students asking me how to do this or that without offending their hosts.

Although I guess the fact that my Japanese colleagues feel comfortable enough with me to complain about the American students in front of me is a good sign. It probably means on some level that I’ve been accepted as a member of the school faculty, and not simply viewed as “The American” anymore. Or it could mean they sometimes forget I can understand Japanese. I don’t know.

It is not that Japanese children are well behaved and American children aren’t. In fact at the elementary school, arguable Japanese first and second graders are much more out of control then their American counterparts. (Can I get an amen from anyone who teachers at a Japanese elementary school?)
But the standards of behavior are different. For instance a Japanese Junior High School Student knows that he or she can probably get away with reading a comic book in class, or talking quietly to a friend during class time. But they also know that during graduation or closing ceremony there is hell to pay if they don’t stand up straight and bow crisply at the appropriate times. An American student wouldn’t know this of course.

In one of my previous entries I wrote about how concerned the school faculty was that the Americans not bring candy into the school. There’s no candy allowed in a Japanese school. Now in my opinion it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if for one day a few American kids brought a coke to school, or were chewing gum or something. But this was one line the Japanese faculty had decided to draw in the sand and had decided to defend. There were a lot of lines like this.
For instance the was a concern (perhaps understandably) that the American students wouldn’t understand proper etiquette for the closing ceremony, so a decision was made to have me just entertain the kids myself for a couple hours in a separate room (more about that later). Also there was a concern that having American students in the classroom would make the Japanese kids more excited and more rambunctious than they usually are. A decision was made to limit the amount of time the Americans spent in the classroom. Again, the concern was probably legitimate, but the result of all of this was to effectively segregate the American students from the Japanese student body, with the exception of the handful of Japanese students who were actually hosting one of the Americans.

I was somewhat reminded of the exchange program in Innai that I helped out with two years ago. A group of Australian students were in Innai for a week. I remember at one point complaining to a Japanese colleague, “Look, all these kids want to do is just hang out with Japanese kids their own age. And our Japanese students would absolutely love the opportunity to meet foreigners. So why are we spending the whole week dragging these kids to temples that they couldn’t care less about, and only having them visit the schools for one day?”
The Japanese colleague (who was about my age) just shook his head and answered, “I know. I feel the same way. But the old Japanese men who plan out these programs don’t understand what the kids want to do.”

This principle was very clearly illustrated on the second day of the exchange. The schedule called for the students to spend the day touring Godo. Now the sight seeing in Godo town itself is extremely limited. Godo is famous for roses, but it’s still a bit chilly over here and the roses aren’t in bloom yet. The only other site of interest is “Hiyoshi Shrine.” Although the people in Godo claim it is famous, Japanese people even in the neighboring town have often never even heard of it. So to say it is “famous” is a bit of lie. It is unique, because it is one of the few shrines that combine both Shinto and Buddhist elements.
Most Japanese are religious pluralists, believing in both Shintoism and Buddhism. But it is extremely rare for Shintoism and Buddhism to be placed within the same shrine, and so in that respect “Hiyoshi Shrine” is an interesting place to visit. Of course all this is a bit lost on American middle school students.

Anyway, Thursday morning everyone arrived at school. We had a leisurely morning in the meeting room. The Japanese staff served coffee to everyone. Then decided to set out. After we had loaded the California students and chaperones into the bus, one of the teachers asked the guide from the town hall, “So, where are you taking them today?”

“To the Hiyoshi Shrine.”

“What? You can’t take them there. That’s where there spending tomorrow morning.”

“Oh. Okay, well where else can we take them?” Again, like I said the site seeing options in Godo are limited. Everyone pulled out their brochures and started making suggestions.

Now dig this scene: They’ve had a whole year to prepare for this day. Now, with the all students and chaperones already loaded up on the bus, they suddenly realize they don’t know where to take them. “The rose gardens?” someone suggests.
“They’re not in bloom yet.”
“They could look at it anyway.”
“We could take them to the library,” the town hall guy says.
“What? These are Americans. You can’t take them to a library.”
“I know they couldn’t read the books, but they could see what a Japanese library looks like.”
“These are American students. They don’t know how to behave properly in a library.” Suddenly no one knew what to do with the American students.
I tried to help out. I thought, if I were a middle school student, what would I want to do?
“There’s a video game arcade down the road,” I said.
“Come on, be serious. We need to think here,” they told me.
“No, I am serious. There’s a video arcade, and a big shopping mall, and a 100 yen shop. The kids would love it.” My idea got shot down very quickly.
In the end they decided to just go to Hiyoshi Shrine, and just do it for two days in a row.

The kids put up with it reasonably well. But I said to a Japanese colleague later, “Look, these kids have just spent 3 days seeing temples in Kyoto. Now they’re going to see this shrine for two days in a row. They would have absolutely loved the video game arcade.”

“I know,” he said. “But we’re public school teachers. We can’t take students to a video game arcade.” And I guess I can dig that. But still…

So that was Thursday. Friday came around and the school had closing ceremonies, which they didn’t want the American kids coming to. Since the 9th graders had already graduated, the plan was for the 9th grade students to take the Americans to Hiyoshi Shrine again.

It was the same temple for the second day. But the kids handled it well. They were happy because this time they were going with the 9th grade Japanese students, so it would be time for interaction. Plus it was snowing that day. These kids were from California, so some of them had never seen snow. And it was a really beautiful kind of snow, falling in heavy sheets on the ground. The temple would look really beautiful in this weather.

Although the California students did have their own chaperones with them, these chaperones had taken the day off to go sight seeing elsewhere. While all the other teachers were running around getting ready for closing ceremonies, I was put in charge of keeping an eye on the California students, and the Japanese 9th grade students.

I had assumed that when the schedule said “9th grade students” it meant all the 9th grade students. But as usual, that only referred to the five 9th grade girls who were hosting an American student. The rest of the students were, as usual, separated from the Americans. Anyway, I was in the meeting room, with the 5 Japanese students and the California students, trying to keep an eye on things. As I was talking to one student, another one ran up and told me she had accidentally written on the corkboard.

The meeting room had a corkboard next to the chalkboard for posting announcements. Because the meeting room was an official looking room, they had painted the corkboard green to make it blend in with the rest of the room more. Since the green corkboard was right next to the green chalkboard, it was an easy mistake for these students to make to think it was part of the chalkboard. Well, it was and it wasn’t. It was a stupid move, but it was an honest mistake.

I came over. “Bunnies are cute,” was written all across the corkboard. We tried erasing it, but it turns out chalk does not erase off of a corkboard as easily as it erases off a black board. After making a couple attempts, I just shrugged my shoulders and said to the student, “Don’t worry about it. Either it will come off later or it won’t, but don’t worry about it for now.”

The five Japanese students in the room however seemed to realize that a grave offense had been committed, and ran off to get one of the Japanese teachers. The Japanese teacher came into look at it, and was absolutely horrified. She gave me a death glare as I sheepishly explained, “I’m sorry, I was talking to another student at the time. I didn’t see this happen.”

“This isn’t good,” she said. “This is a very important room. We can’t have, ‘Bunnies are cute’, written here.” Some soap and water were fetched, and with a bit of elbow grease from the students the chalk came off. Still, the incident sparked off another round of complaining in the teacher’s room about how out of control these American students are.

The 5 Japanese 9th graders and the California students got ready to set off for the temple. We had gone by bus the previous day, but the temple is actually walking distance from the school. As they were getting ready to leave, one of the Japanese teachers asked me, “So, you’re okay to chaperone, right?”

“Right, no problem,” I answered.

“And if there were any problems you would call me of course,” she said.

“Of course,” I said. “I don’t think there will be any problems.”

She suddenly thought of something else. “Wait, what if there was a traffic accident or something?”

“It’s okay. I know the phone number for the ambulance. And I would call you.”

“Yeah, but there should probably be someone else with you. Just for official reasons. I mean you’re not officially a faculty member of this school, so if something were to go wrong it would look bad on us if you were the only one supervising.”
By this point most of the other teachers were already at the closing ceremony. But she got on her cell phone and called them up during the ceremony, trying to figure out who could afford to miss some of the ceremony to help me chaperone the students. All this was taking a bit of time, so I suggested, “I should probably go tell the students to wait for us a minute while we sort all this out.”

She looked at me with a blank expression. “Well I think the students probably left a long time ago, don’t you?”

“Well I should probably go catch up to them then, don’t you think?”

“Are you okay on your own?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be okay,” I answered.

Absolutely bizarre. In the time we spent debating whether one chaperone or two, they had been perfectly content to let the students walk to the shrine completely unsupervised. No, I’m not exaggerating. No, I don’t understand it either. I’ve given up a long time ago trying to understand everything that happens in Japan.

I walked at a brisk pace and did my best to catch up with the students. They had taken a different route than I did, so although I did end up catching up the time, I met them just as they were arriving at the park. The California students were impressed. “Joel, how did you get here? We left before you, how did you get here before us? You’re like a wizard just appearing everywhere.”

It had stopped snowing by this time, but there was a playground next to the shrine that the students went to. One of the California students said to me, “The Japanese 9th graders say we have to leave after 3 minutes.”

“You misunderstood,” I assured her. “I’m sure they meant 30.”

At this point one of the Japanese students said, “No, we have to leave in 3 minutes.”

I assumed this was a mistake with her English. I switched into Japanese. Still three minutes.

“Three minutes? Three minutes? Wait a second, what do you mean three minutes?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We have to go back to school for the departing ceremony.”

I realize all of this is bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the Japanese education system. There were two ceremonies that morning: the end of the year closing ceremony, which did not concern the 9th graders, because they had already graduated. But there was also the ceremony for departing teachers. 9th graders were expected to return for that ceremony for a final good-bye to their old teachers.

“It’s okay,” said another 9th grade student. “They saw this shrine already yesterday anyway.”

“Yeah I know,” I said, “but it took us 15 minutes just to walk here. We’re not seriously going to leave again after 3 minutes, are we?”

I put up such a fuss that eventually the 9th grade students said to me, “Okay, okay, we told a small lie. Actually we have 10 minutes before we have to leave. But we told them 3 minutes so that they wouldn’t complain when we have to leave in 10 minutes.”

Amazing. It was just like talking to my parents. As upset as I was at the situation, I couldn’t help but admire the leadership skills of these 15 year old girls. I guess in Japan students really do mature faster.

In the end, however, even the short time we spent at the shrine was apparently too long. On the way back I got a call from the school. The ceremony was already to begin, and they were waiting on the five 9th grade girls I had with me. I needed to tell those girls to run back to school.

Now, at this point we were already trying to get the students to head back to school. But getting middle school students to go anywhere is a bit like herding cats. Some of them took off down the road for the school, but some of them were straggling behind, and some of them got halfway back to school and then realized they forgot something at the temple. When I got the phone call I was in the back of the group trying to round up the stragglers. The Japanese students, who I needed to talk to, were in the front of the group, which was easily a half a kilometer ahead. I couldn’t even see them at the time. So I had to sprint that half a kilometer to make up the distance. As I ran, the California students took the opportunity to take action photos of me running, or to comment on my running form. By the time I caught up to the 9th grade students they had just about reached school anyway.

The 9th graders made it to their ceremony, and I herded the California students back into the meeting room. Because the school didn’t know what else to do with them during that time, they scheduled a “Learn Japanese with Joel” time. I thought that was a bit silly. First of all I’m no teacher. Second of all I wasn’t given any notice on this, so I didn’t prepare anything. And thirdly, these kids did not come all the way to Japan to hang out with me.

Nevertheless the school didn’t want them anywhere near the closing ceremonies, so I had to entertain them for the hour. “Look, it says on the schedule I’m supposed to teach you Japanese,” I said. “But we don’t really have to do that if you don’t want to.” To my surprise, they wanted to do it.

I didn’t have anything prepared, but fortunately the kids had a lot of questions. The questions started out related to Japanese language, but soon spilled into all sorts of topics related to Japan. I would barely finish answering one question, and two more hands would go up.
After 4 years of teaching very passive Japanese Junior high students, it was a nice change to teach some very active American students. They asked a lot of questions and generally seemed interested in what I had to say. And I enjoyed playing the role of “Japan expert.” We actually passed the time very easily.

There was a Fight and I was Involved. Sort of. Actually Not Really.

Unlike my previous entry, “I Almost Get into a Fight”, this story is not really that exciting. Well, I guess the actual event was really exciting, but my involvement in it was minimal. Actually it’s probably pretty pathetic that I’m making a whole blog entry out of it.

Anyway, it was Saturday night out, and I was bar hopping with a couple friends. We went to a local bar in Gifu city, which was called “Bottoms Up.” “Bottoms Up” was having a birthday party for the bar owner, who was turning 38. In celebration the bar was having what is known in Japanese as a “nomihodai” or “all you can drink.”

Nomihodais are common in Japan. You pay a set fee and then you can get as absolutely trashed as you want. It’s usually a great money saver if you are a big drinker.
The problem for me is I don’t usually drink. So it is really a bad deal for me to pay about 30 bucks just to get in the door, and then drink oolong tea the whole time. I’m not really sure why I do it actually, except the two friends I was with wanted to check the party out. I rationalize it by saying that, since I don’t like drinking anyway, I would rather pay 30 bucks and not drink than pay 30 bucks and drink. I’m not sure if that makes a lot of sense or not.

Anyway, it’s a nomihodai. Everyone is getting really drunk, and I’m in the middle of it all sipping my oolong tea, easily the only sober person in the bar. The bar owner himself gets so drunk that he passes out and is sleeping on the floor.

“Bottoms Up” is what’s known as a “Gaijin bar”. Sorry, that’s Japanese again. It means “Foreigner bar.” Of course that doesn't mean it’s exclusively foreigners. But on any given night, the population in the bar will be about half foreign.

Of course you would think that if there was any trouble it would be started by those unruly foreigners. But on this particular night the fight was started by a couple native Japanese people.

I’m still not sure what the fight was about. I heard a crashing sound and saw a bar stool had been knocked over. I thought someone had fallen off their chair, but then realized two Japanese men were wrestling and punching each other.

A bunch of people ran in to try and break up the fight, but then another fight seemed to break out between two other people. Again, I’m not really sure what happened. I think in the rush to break up the fight, a stray punch hit someone it shouldn't have, and then that person tried to hit back and a new fight broke up. All I could see was a rush of people and then more fighting. Like I said, I was easily the only sober person at this place, and you know how these drunken bar fights go.

“Bottoms Up”, like all bars in Japan, is really small and narrow. It’s not a good place to contain a fight. Everyone was getting shoved around. One of the glass doors was shattered when a couple combatants crashed into it. Then there was some screaming as a few girls got pushed into the shattered glass. Lots more people were trying to break up the fight, but from my perspective it was hard to tell who was trying to break the fight up and who was fighting. Again, it was a drunken bar fight, so I think at times the line may have been blurred between the two.

The bar owner, as I mentioned, had passed out long ago. There were about four girls who worked behind the bar, and they did their best to stop the fighting. On one hand they were rather small and petite and ineffective in this role. On the other hand they were all quite good looking, and I thought to myself no guy would ever hit them even if they got right in the middle of things. So in this way they were a calming influence. On the other hand, I think because they were so good looking a lot of people wanted to try and help them break up the fight, and the more people who got in the middle of things the more confusing it all got.

As I mentioned in my previous post about fighting, I’m no hero, and I was quite content to just sit at my bar stool, sip oolong tea, and watch it all unfold. I would make comments to the girl sitting next to me like, “Oh wow, isn't this exciting.” Or, “Wait, who’s fighting who now?”

One of the two Japanese men who had started the whole fight was sitting close to where I was. By this time the fight had moved on to other people, but he was obviously still fuming and obviously still mad at somebody. And then he stood up, grabbed a bar stool, and ran forward as if he was going to bash someone’s head in with it.

I don’t know how well you can picture this, but it was an ordinary bar stool, or maybe more of a bar chair, because it did have a back to it. It was made of iron, or some metal anyway. It had four legs all connected to the seat at the top, and then near the end of the legs there was another thin ring connecting them again. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Anyway, as he ran by me, I stood up and hooked my arm around the ring near the base of the legs. So, he kept going, but the bar stool stayed with me and slipped out of his hands. He paused briefly, and then plunged back into the fight anyway without the barstool.

But that’s not to say I had control of the barstool. I just had my elbow hooked around it; I didn't have a firm grip on it. So the barstool fell to the ground.

It all happened so quickly, so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think the barstool hit anyone on its way to the ground. Nevertheless the people around me all glared at me. Perhaps they were just upset at the situation and just happened to be looking in my direction. But I was expecting someone to come up and say, “Good show Joel. Your quick thinking in a tight spot saved someone from having their head bashed in by a barstool, and stopped a bad situation from getting worse.” No one did. Even the girl I was talking with at the time, rather than congratulate me, decided the situation was getting too dangerous and ran into the bathroom to hide.

Even though I didn't think it was my fault, I decided to “do the Japanese thing” and apologize to the people around me anyway. Shortly after the police were called and the fighting eventually stopped.

“The bar owner’s really going to be in trouble,” someone said to me. “Look at him. He’s still passed out.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “This is Japan. If there’s one place that it’s okay to get drunk and pass out, it’s here.”

“But bartender’s aren't supposed to drink on duty. The police are going to say he lost control of his bar because he got drunk. This isn't going to go well for him at all.”

As the police arrived and started interviewing people, my friend said to me, “Come on, we better get out of here.”

“Why?” I asked. “We didn't do anything wrong. We don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Yeah, I know, I just don’t want to get involved.”
So we left the bar, along with most of the other people who were leaving at the same time. I was still half waiting for someone to congratulate me for the barstool incident, but I don’t think anyone else had really noticed. It was a small bar, so almost everyone there had some sort of battle story, whether being hit by a wrong punch, or being cut by the glass, or something. My little incident with the barstool suddenly didn't seem that impressive after all.

I lose my Faith in CNN

Sorry I haven't posted anything on this blog in a couple days. It's been a busy week. Spring Break has officially started as of yesterday. We had the end of the year ceremonies and good-bye parties at school. There's a new ALT coming in April, and my schedule is changing. And we're currently hosting a group of middle school students from California. I hope to write about all of these events in turn in the next couple days.

But for today, I just want to talk briefly about CNN, whose internet website has been one of my main sources of news since I came to Japan.

I know CNN is awful. I know the BBC website, or independent media websites, or many other websites, have a lot better news, but my rationalization is that it is good to know what the rest of the nation is reading.

Since my internet access is limited, I download CNN on my cell phone, and read through their headline news that way. They have a special service for cell phones.

There has been a lot of news about the Michael Jackson trail, which is reported under the "main-headline" section of their cell-phone website. I put up with it.

But this week, for 4 days in a row, one of the top headline stories in the world this week, has been: Pet store owner: Satan's image on turtle's shell. Let me repeat myself. Not only did this qualify as one of their top ten headline news stories, this was one of their top ten headline news stories for four days in a row. Out of the ten top stories on their cell-phone website.

I have officially lost all my faith in CNN

Monday, March 21, 2005

Drama at School

We had a little excitement at the Junior High School today. It seems one of the mothers of an 8th grade student was upset at the treatment her daughter was receiving from some classmates. So in the middle of the afternoon she showed up at school, marched into the class room, and started yelling at the students in question. The teacher in the class ran into the staff room (where I was) to get the help of the Vice Principle. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of people running back and forth for a while, but eventually the mother was persuaded to go into the staff room and talk about her grievances rather there, than in the classroom. They moved into the small meeting room adjacent to the staff room, and the vice principal and other senior teachers did their best to keep things professional, but the other teachers were very interested in what was going on. Every time a new teacher would come into the staff room the story would be repeated, and sometimes people had to be reminded to keep their voices down so the mother in the adjacent room wouldn’t hear everyone gossiping about her.

The whole thing got me thinking about some of the other little dramas that have happened this year. Of course being in a school setting is filled with little dramas. Every week there is some in kid who gets in trouble, or gets in a fight, or something like that. But here are a few things that stick out in my memory:

About a month ago a junior high school student was hit by a car while he was leaving school on his bike. No one was injured, but because it was a traffic accident it required that the police get involved and the all the wheels of the bureaucracy were set in motion. The old man who hit the student was in the school for a long time talking to the teacher. The police were in the area taking pictures and writing reports.

I didn’t personally see the accident, so I really shouldn’t comment, but to my mind there is no excuse for hitting a student right outside of the school. If it was down the road a ways that would have been one thing, but it is just common sense to drive carefully around a school zone. Especially when the students are leaving, and since the students all leave at the same time, it is pretty easy to tell when school is out. I’ve noticed, however, that the driving up here tends to be a lot more aggressive than the driving in Kyushu. Occasionally I’ve even had the driver behind me get upset because I slowed down at a school zone. Anyway, moving on to the next story….

A couple weeks ago we were practicing for graduation. As I’ve noted a couple entries back, graduation in Japan is a bit odd. Since it is something the whole school attends, practices are for the whole school as well, not just the graduating 9th graders. One of the 7th grade girls decided she was sick of all the standing up and sitting down, and began pleading with her home room teacher to let her stop. He told her to tough it out. She actually made a run for the door. He caught her and restrained her, and she pretended to give up and started back to her seat. But as soon as he let go of her she ran again and this time dodged him. A couple other teachers tried to intercept her as she ran across the gym, but she was able to out maneuver them all and escape.
Some of the teachers later told me that the girl in question has emotional problems. Personally I think she’s the sanest person in the school.

Maybe 3 months ago or so, one of the teachers actually collapsed in the classroom. He’s a young guy, about my age I think although I haven’t actually asked him his age. He’s slightly overweight by Japanese standards, but I’d never call him fat back in America. He looks like that guy you knew who was real skinny in high school, but when he got to University his metabolism slowed down, and he started to round out just a little bit because he ate a lot of pizza and drank a lot of beer and never exercised. That kind of guy. I’ve always liked those kind of people because they seem to be a lot of fun to be around. This guy as well seems really fun, although unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to get to know him really well.

Anyway, apparently he was teaching a 9th grade class when he suddenly collapsed on the floor and started foaming at the mouth. The students ran to the next classroom, and the teacher in the next classroom ran to the staff room where I was. They called an ambulance, and got the stretcher from the nurse’s room and carried him downstairs to the door to wait for the ambulance.
I insisted on helping even though they had more than enough people to carry the stretcher, just because I thought it would look really bad if I stayed at my desk and kept studying Japanese as if I didn’t care. Actually I think everyone must have been thinking along those lines, because we had way to many people carrying the stretcher, and then afterwards everyone was tripping over each other trying to help him.
He looked really bad. He was awake, but his eyes were glazed over and he didn’t seem aware of what was going on. I thought it was pretty serious. But that afternoon I saw him working away on his computer in the staff room as if nothing had happened. “I can’t believe they didn’t give you the rest of day off,” I said to him. “In America, if you have to ride in an ambulance in the morning, they usually give you the afternoon off.”
He answered, “I’d like to take the day off, but…” He left the “but” hanging as is a common way of ending sentences in Japanese, and I didn’t push it anymore than that, although I was appalled that he didn’t get the rest of the day off.
I found out later from the other teachers that this wasn’t the first time this has happened to him. The doctors can’t find anything wrong though, so they just let him go back to school when he seemed to be feeling better.
Because the teacher in question always gets his food out of convenience stores, some of the other teachers suspect the problems might be diet related. Apparently one of the older teachers keeps trying to get him to drink more vegetable juice, and they are always arguing about it.
I’m no doctor, but I have a hard time believing this kind of thing is caused by a poor diet. If it is, I’m really in trouble.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Another Appalling News Item

I found this article randomly while surfing the internet, and then realized to my surprise that these nuns are from my hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And so I suspect that as usual I'm a bit behind on things, and everyone back home in Grand Rapids has already heard about it.

Although I know this kind of thing is nothing new, it always outrages me when I hear about people being sent to prison as punishment for working for peace. Think of all the people in our society making profits from the war and sending young soldiers off to day, and being respected members of the community. And when nuns try and stand up for peace, they are harshly punished.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

I go on at Length About Things that are Probably Only of Interest to Me

I have something to confess which is going to make my conservative friends even angrier at me than they all ready are. I’ve started learning French. I’m sorry. But I’ll have you know I did stick up for the USA recently (see blog entry a few days back).

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of history from 19th century Europe, and particularly France. It’s a subject I was first turned on to during my “Modern Europe” class at Calvin. In middle and high school, none of my history classes ever talked about the age of revolution in Europe. I had assumed that European history had essentially ended after America became independent, and nothing of any importance happened there again until the World Wars.

But the cycle of revolutions that shook Europe during the 19th century seem to me to be more exciting than any of the political turbulence during the 20th century. For instance the Revolutions of 1848, which started in Paris, and then quickly spread to every European capital. Added to the wars of independence in the same year in Latin America, and unrest in India, 1848 can legitimately be called the greatest year of worldwide revolution, which makes 1968 look very tame by comparison. Although most of the revolutions of 1848 ended in failure, it must have been an exciting time to be alive. Much of the today’s radical politics were formed in 1848.

Or the history of the first International is interesting as well. The men and woman of the first International, including Karl Marx and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, traveled Europe working for Revolution in an age where the collapse of government, an end to war, and the universal brotherhood of mankind seemed like it was just a few steps away. The fact that the members of the International came from every country in Europe, and worked for revolution in every country in Europe, shows a real romantic view of true international revolution.

The Paris Commune in 1871 also fascinates me, when the left briefly took control of Paris for two months. Unquestionably the Paris Commune was a diverse lot, consisting of socialists, communists, Jacobins, and Blanquists. But if we broadly define anarchist as anyone with Proudhonist sympathies, than a large portion of the Commune can be classified as anarchists. Imagine that the anarchists once had control of a major European capital. And to think that all this, the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, were not happening in the back waters of some 3rd world country (as we might expect today) but in the heart of Western Civilization.

Anyway, that’s why I’m interested. I don’t know if this will lead to anything in my future, like further studies in graduate school someday, or not. Reading about it in my spare time is one thing, deciding to dedicate my life to it is quite another. But I’ve decided that it wouldn’t hurt to start learning a little French just in case.

I had previously been trying to learn Korean. I had bought a couple books and language CDs, and had asked a Korean woman at my church to tutor me. She graciously agreed to study with me once a week, and I tried to study by myself on a daily basis. After about two months, I hadn’t learned a single word of Korean. I knew how to say “Hello” and “Thank you”, but since I knew that before anyway (from my trip to Korea 8 years ago), I essentially didn’t learn a single word in two months of studying. The sad part is I’m not exaggerating. I did however manage to get a shaky grasp on the writing system, and could read and write the characters by the end of it (for what that’s worth).

So I’ve decided to give up on Korean, and substitute French instead. And wow, is that ever a whole lot easier.

After studying Japanese for the past 3 years, I’m beginning to think I should have switched over to French a long time ago. I haven’t studied French at all and already I know a lot of words. “L’ Internationale”? I’m pretty sure that’s “The International.” “humain”? Turns out it means human. “criminel”? It means “criminal”. After years of staring at Kanji figures in a textbook, this seems like a piece of cake.

I’m even learning a lot of Japanese from my French studies. When I tried to learn Korean, it was a one-way street. I’d listen to the Japanese word on the CD, and then if I knew it I could try and learn the Korean word as well. Now if I don’t know the Japanese word, chances are I can recognize the French word and then learn the Japanese word as well.

The only thing that discourages me a little is no one expects you to be too good at Japanese or Korean. Whereas for French the expectations are a lot higher. Canadians and British people, for instance, study it from elementary school. So it does seem a little silly to be just starting to dabble in it a little at 26 years of age.

But I’m hoping my Latin background will help out a bit. Also since my only goal is to be able to read it, not write or speak it, I hope that will help as well.

Right now I’m trying to learn some French by memorizing the words to “The International” and “La Marseillaise”. I was recently reading a book by Howard Zinn in which he talks about how in the early 60s civil rights workers in the South used to sing “La Marseillaise.” It’s amazing to think that a song written in 1792 still seemed relevant enough to sing during the civil rights movement.

“The International” was written during the Paris Commune. A book I was reading on the Paris Commune commented that given the bloody suppression of the radicals involved, you would expect an angry anarchist song to emerge. But “The International” evokes the image of a hopeful future in a world without kings and a united human race. I’d like to think the dream is not completely lost even now.

One of the language CDs I bought recently has the words to “La Marseillaise” on it, so I’ve been listening to that to help me with the pronunciation, but I still don’t know the tune. By contrast I know the tune to “The International” from listening to the English and Japanese versions of it, but I don’t know how to pronounce the French words.

Also when I was at the demonstration in Quebec I heard a lot of other revolutionary French songs which I’d like to learn, but don’t know the names of. Perhaps someone can help me out. I remember one was to the tune of “The Ants go Marching.” Does anyone know what it is?

And while I’m asking questions, those accent things on French words: do the French themselves actually write with the accents, or is that just something for foreign textbooks? And what is that thing that sometimes hangs off the “c”?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

To Stay or Go

I’ve signed a contract to stay here another year.

When I was on JET, the contracts there were always August to August, which was a little bit odd because the Japanese school year starts in April.

The company I work for now tries to follow the Japanese school year. I started in September, but that was only because a position opened up mid-year. Come this spring, I had to decide if I was going to go home in March, or stay another year.

If I had to decide in September whether to stay or go, it might have given me pause for thought. But since I must decide now, it seemed like a no-brainer to stay on for another year. To stay for less than a year would not have been worth the financial investment of moving and furnishing a new apartment. Not to mention the emotional investment of having to get used to a new place and make all new friends. (And I’m not a very outgoing person, so it is a bit of an effort for me to make new friends in new situations).

So I’ll stay another year until next March. But I’m pretty sure that will be it. I think I’ve been doing this Assistant English Teacher gig for more than long enough.

Which brings me to the topic of Japan: the benefits of staying and the benefits of leaving. It’s been kicking around in the back of my head to write about for some time now, but it’s one of those big messy topics that is hard to write about in a succinct way without getting side tracked into all sorts of tangents. It’s also sometimes difficult to separate my feelings about my job from feelings about Japan. There are times when I think I want to stay in Japan, but I’ve had enough of teaching English. And there are times when I think I want to continue in education, but I’ve had enough of Japan. But most of the time if I’m feeling negative about one aspect, it tends to feed my negativity about the other. And also the reverse when I’m feeling positive. So for the purposes of this blog entry I’ll just lump both aspects, the country and the job, together.

I was an education major in university, so it would be likely that if I was back home I’d be involved in education anyway. It would be different of course. I’d probably be teaching history instead of ESL. I’d have more responsibilities, and more control over the class. But it would essentially still be education in a school setting, just like I’m doing now.

So on days when things are well, I think to myself I’m doing same things with my life now that I’d be doing if I were back home. I’m teaching during the day. And I’m meeting my friends at night and going out to play pool, or bowling, or to the bar, or whatever. So it’s essentially the same kind of things I’d be probably doing back home at this time in my life.

Only it’s a lot more interesting in Japan because I’m in a foreign country, where all sorts of weird things happen. There is the challenge of learning a foreign language, and the excitement of learning about a foreign culture. I stick out like a sore thumb wherever I go, so a lot more interesting things seem to happen to me here. I get a lot more attention from girls in Japan. And yet I can still meet up with other ex-patriot friends in the evenings and speak in English and relax.

So at those times I feel like Japan is the perfect place to be while I’m still relatively young and in my 20s. Sometimes I even feel sorry for friends back in America who are missing out on all this.

And yet there are other times when I feel like I’m wasting my youth here. The job of an Assistant English Teacher is a pretty easy job, so it lends itself to boredom sometimes. Also I’m not really developing a lot of skills that are would be useful for my professional development. Because I’m in a foreign country, the opportunity for social activism is almost non-existent, and I think to myself that while I’m young and have energy now is the time of my life where I should be pouring myself into social causes.

And more than anything, it is the sense of isolation I sometimes feel at school. I can meet up with English speaking friends in the evenings or on the weekends, but for 8 hours 5 days a week I am in a Japanese school. I speak a bit of Japanese. Some of the teachers, especially the English teachers, speak a bit of English, but it is always labored communication either way. If someone wants to explain something to me, it is an effort, and so I’m always the odd one out in the teachers’ room.

One of my JET friends from England once told me the thing he missed about home most was the way his friends used to make him laugh. “I rarely laugh in Japan,” he said. I feel the same way, at least during the workday. Other people are laughing, but I rarely know what the joke is, and even when I do often I don’t find it funny (humor differences between cultures perhaps? Or perhaps the fact that if you have to work to understand any joke, it loses its humor?)

Sometimes I feel like I don’t care what job I do in the US as long as the people around me speak English. I could work at McDonald’s in the US as long as I could speak to my co-workers in English.

In spite of the fact that my “foreignness” makes me an object of interest for the students, the language barrier limits how close I can get to them. I often envy the close bond the Japanese teachers seem to form with the students, and the ease with which they communicate back and forth about trivial matters. And when I hear stories from teaching friends back home, I often get the same feeling.

Oh, and well I’m complaining, some days I’d like to be able to turn on the radio and have it be in English, to watch TV and have it be in English, to go to the bookstore and have the books be in English, and the magazines on the rack be in English.

Anyway, don’t worry too much about me. I have good days over here and I have bad days over here, just like any other job or any other situation in the world. And, even on a bad day, I’ll have moments of goodness. So I’m not dreading the coming year by any means. I’ll be able to make it through one more year easily.

But I’m pretty sure next year will be the last.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Graduation

This past Friday the 9th grade students graduated. The Japanese academic school year ends in March. I’ve actually got a couple weeks of teaching left before Spring Break. The 9th graders get out early so they can prepare for high school entrance exams and what not.

Graduation is an odd affair in Japan. Every year I write about it, and every year I am again amazed by the strangeness of it. I’ve only had this weblog up and running for just over a year now, but some of you may recall long e-mails about graduation that I sent the first couple years I was in Japan.

Anyway, I don’t want to repeat myself too much, so I’ll just quickly reference some of “Joel’s Greatest Graduation Hits.” There is the blog entry I wrote on it last year. I was at a different school then, but a lot of the same stuff. And then there is this article I wrote for the Tombo Times about the singing of the National Anthem during graduation, and why it is always such an awkward moment.
Also Mike wrote a good blog entry about graduation at Ajimu High School. Again, different school, but a lot of the same stuff really. And by the way, that thing he says about always bowing at the wrong time and looking like an idiot, I could really identify with it.

So, trying not to repeat myself to much and doing my best to stay brief, here’s my take on graduation. I guess there are two main things that strike me as odd about graduation in Japan. One is the excessive preparation. For about two weeks before the actual ceremony, every afternoon is spent practicing graduation. Now here’s the really odd thing: Graduation is always held on a weekday morning, so very few people can attend; almost no fathers, a few mothers, and then various guests from the town hall and the Board of Education. So they spend weeks practicing so they can perform basically in front of each other.

And the kinds of things they practice are very Japanese. They practice sitting straight in their chairs, standing up when called upon to do so, and bowing at the correct angles. To me as an American it is valuable education time that could be better spent, but it’s important to them.

The other thing I find odd is the excessive emotion at graduation. There is always a lot of crying. This is partly because 9th grade is the last year of compulsory education in Japan. High school is not only optional, but students actually select which high school they want to attend and take entrance exams in order to enter. The process of selecting a high school in Japan is a lot like selecting a University in the US, only of course the kids are a lot younger and don’t handle the stress quite as well. There are always a lot of behavior problems in the 9th grade class during the last term before graduation. And the teachers understand that the kids are stressed out, and seem to be amazingly tolerant of what seem to me to be major offensives, such as windows being broken on purpose, or fist fights breaking out in the hallways.

I guess I’m getting off topic a little. The point is after 9th grade the junior high school class does not commonly proceed to the same high school together, but is scattered to the four winds, so it is a bit of a sad time for the kids.

Now in Ajimu, although in theory the kids could go anywhere they wanted, almost all of them proceeded to Ajimu High School right down the street. So all the crying seemed a bit out of place to me. In my present school the situation is a bit different. There’s not even a high school in my town (even though the town is bigger than Ajimu. There’s no consistency.) So the kids are all going in different directions next year, and the crying seems somewhat more natural.

This marks the fourth graduation ceremony I’ve seen since I’ve come to Japan. But since I’ve only been at this school since September, I don’t know these kids quite as well as some of the other classes I’ve seen graduate, and in that since it’s not as much as a big deal.

On the other hand, since I’ve only been at this school since September, I was much more of a novelty to these kids than I was to the kids back in Ajimu. And in that sense I got a lot more attention, and spent a lot of time with this year’s 9th grade class, and got a lot of really touching farewell notes from a lot of them. I was sorry to see them go, as I’m always sorry to see the 9th grade students go. But I’m also used to it by now.

The thing that really scares me is that back in Ajimu, the class graduating Ajimu high school now (again, reference Mike’s blog), started out as my 9th grade students when I first arrived.

In spite of the fact that I’ll soon be 27, I often think of myself as still a college student, or just fresh out of college. Perhaps that’s partly because living in Japan, the past four years have seemed like a time warp, and not real time passing. But if there was ever a slap in the face that those years are long past, it is the fact that my former junior high school students are now college freshmen.

In Case Anyone was thinking of visiting...

These Airplane rates look pretty reasonable. Tip of the hat to B. Jeremy Jackson for the link

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I Almost get into a Fight

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. I’m not sure if punches were actually about to be thrown, or not. At the time I thought we were a breath away from hitting each other, but perhaps my adrenaline at the time caused me to misread things. At any rate it was a tense situation.

It all started two weeks ago when I was walking through Gifu city. I come into Gifu city often for Japanese class, and one day I came a bit early, so I was walking around the shops there. I was approached by a Japanese girl who asked, “Are you Joel Teacher?”

I’m not used to people randomly coming up and asking me this question, so it threw me off a bit, but I answered that I was in fact he. Turns out she lives in Godo town (the town I currently work and live in) and she had read about me in the town newspaper. She wanted to learn English and had wanted to meet me, so she was quite happy to run into me. I said I would be glad to teach her English, and we exchanged contact information and worked out a schedule to meet.

I don’t think she’ll ever read this weblog, but let’s change her name anyway and call her “Aya.” She was 22 years old, and not currently in school, but interested in learning English so she could study abroad and become a nurse. She had failed the nursing test in Japan. Because Japanese society can be very strict, there exists a section of Japanese people (mainly women) who want to escape from Japan and live abroad.

I met her that weekend and we talked about what she wanted to study. I suggested she keep an English journal that she would write in every day, and then I would meet with her once a week and help correct her grammar, and teach her about any mistakes she made.

We met on Tuesday and I looked through her journal. She had written a lot of personal things in it. In particular she wrote of harassment she had received from someone named “Tom” (not his real name either).

Apparently she had been studying English in a coffee house about a month ago. Tom had seen the English books on her table, and offered to teach English to her. She accepted and gave him her telephone number, but soon became aware that Tom had ulterior motives. “It was the start of nightmarish days for me,” she wrote in her journal. “He was very selfish and forced me to do many things. His only purpose was my body.”

She had written that she changed her telephone number to avoid Tom, who was apparently calling her up to 40 times a day. Then, Tom had gone to her place of work to confront her. Fortunately her boss intercepted Tom, but Tom became angry and started yelling at her. The boss prevented Tom from getting close to her, but he yelled out all sorts of nasty things about her in the presence of her co-workers. Eventually the police were called and they escorted Tom away. The last line of her journal read, “please help me.”

There is actually someone named Tom who works for the same company as me, and I wondered if it might be the same person. This Tom was a bit of a loose cannon as well. He had liked Monika, but when she refused his advances he degenerated into a huge temper tantrum in the middle of Nagoya city, in which he yelled all sorts of nasty things out at Monika and her friends. It sounded like the same person.

“I think I might know Tom,” I said to Aya. “Can you tell me anything else about him? What is his last name? Where does he live? What company does he work for?”

Aya began to worry that I was friends with Tom, and that I might believe his side of the story instead of hers. Although it supposed to be an English lesson, I broke into my Japanese to explain to her that my purpose was to find out if it was the same person so I could call the company and hopefully put a stop to this. She still seemed very concerned that I not listen to whatever Tom had to say about her. The intensity with which she defended herself against accusations yet unmade caused me to think that there was something she wasn’t telling me, but I wasn’t even worried about that. Whatever had happened between her and Tom in the past, the important thing seemed to be that he left her alone now, and I tried to tell her that was all I was concerned about.

Aya could tell me very little about Tom. She didn’t know his last name, or where he lived, or what company he worked for. She knew he was European, and spoke multiple languages, and taught for an English conversation company. None of this information seemed to square with the Tom I knew, and yet the similarities between the way the two of them had acted still made me suspicious.

I called up Monika on my cell phone. “Listen, this is rather bizarre,” I said, “but I’ve got a Japanese student who’s being harassed by someone named Tom. Do you think it might be the same person? Has Tom spent a lot of time in Europe? Do you think he might be teaching for a conversation company on the side?”

“Hmmm, he’s not European,” Monika said, “but he could have lied about it. I don’t think he’s working for an English conversation company also, but he might be.” Monika agreed that the similarities were eerie, but there were enough pieces that didn’t fit so that we couldn’t come to a definite conclusion.
“I suppose this isn’t enough information to report him to the company,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” Monika agreed.

Monika gave me a web address where I might find pictures of Tom. I asked Aya if she wanted to go to an internet cafĂ© to look, but Aya said it wasn’t necessary. “He won’t bother me again,” she said. “I’ve told him I’m through with him, and the police told him not to come back to my work.”

Well there didn’t seem too much point in tracking him down then. “OK, well let me know if he bother’s you again. And if you meet him again try and get any information about him that you can.” And we called it a night at that.

The following day I was in Gifu station and walking towards my Japanese class. I stopped briefly in a bookstore to look at the English books, and as I was leaving I heard someone calling to me, and there was Aya. She had been in the same bookstore.

We chatted briefly. I said I was going to Japanese class, and didn’t have a lot of time to talk. She said she had just finished work, and was about to take the train home. And then I became aware that there was another person hovering right next to us. Since he was obviously waiting to talk to us I broke off the conversation with Aya to turn to him.

Aya, upon seeing him, immediately grabbed my arm and hid behind me. “It’s him,” she whispered. Indeed, it was not the Tom I knew, but someone I had never met before.

Tom initially ignored me, and tried to talk over me to Aya, who was still hiding behind me. “So, we had an agreement to meet in that coffee shop,” he said to her. “Have you not learned good manners? Were you going to come to that coffee shop or were you going to keep me waiting?”

Sometimes there are moments of crisis in life in which we realize that the person we fantasize about being, and the person we actually are, are very different people. This was one of those moments for me. The previous night I had assured Aya that every thing would be all right. I had envisioned myself meeting Tom, and sternly and forcefully telling him to leave Aya alone or he would have to deal with me. And now that I was actually meeting him, I was terrified of conflict.

Tom was roughly about the same size as me, maybe a little bit shorter. It was winter and we were both wearing heavy clothing, so it was hard to tell who was bigger muscularly, but I thought I had a good chance. Of course I’ve never been in a fight in my whole life, and that counts for a lot. But if I held myself aggressively and made use of my size in an intimidating way, maybe he wouldn’t want to fight. After all, they say most fights are over before the first punch is even thrown.

And yet there I was, with my heart beating rapidly, scared not just of a fight but even a harsh exchange seemed distasteful to me. I knew I would get nervous and start stuttering and saying stupid things, and at that moment I wanted nothing so badly as to make this whole incident go quietly away.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said extending my hand. “My name is Joel.”

He shook my hand as well. “I’m Tom.” We exchanged pleasantries briefly. He was from Germany, andI told him I was an American. And after this brief exchange he said to Aya (still behind me), “OK, I’ll be waiting in the coffee shop for you then,” and left.

“That was him,” Aya said as he walked away.

“Oh, so that was him,” I said, not sure of what else to say.

“I wanted you to help me,” she said in a slightly whiny voice. “Why didn’t you help me?”

I felt simultaneously ashamed of myself, and at the same time unsure of what to do next. “He’s not the person I thought he was,” I said. “I can’t call my company, it wouldn’t do any good.”

“But I wanted you to help me,” she repeated.

“Well, what do you want me to do?” I said, somewhat thinking aloud as I talked to her. “I can go talk to him if you want, but if he’s already talked to the police, and if you don’t think he’s going to bother you at work anymore, maybe everything is okay. Do you want me to talk to him?” She seemed unsure, so I said, “Well, I have to get to Japanese class, and you should get home, so how about if I just walk you as far as the train to make sure there’s no trouble, and then you can head home.”

She agreed to this, but as we were walking past the coffee shop, Tom came out and demanded to know where we were going. “You had a promise to meet me,” he said. “And if you don’t keep your promises, then you haven’t learned anything from me, have you? And now we have to have this talk in front of this nice gentleman here,” he referenced me “who has nothing to do with it and I’m sure has no idea what you’re really like.”

Tom seemed to appreciate my situation, and made a couple more references to the fact that I was in an awkward spot that I didn’t deserve to be, and that he didn’t want to involve me. But it was too late. I was involved. I let the two of them argue for a little bit to see if the situation would resolve itself, and then felt like I had no choice but to step in. “Look, she doesn’t want to talk to you,” I said.

“Oh, and who are you? Have I met you?” Tom asked.

I was unsure if this was a trick question or not. “Well, we just met over there a few minutes ago but…no you don’t know me.”

“So this is not your concern, is it?”

“I’m concerned that you’re harassing her at her work,” I said.

“And so what are you going to do about it, American? Are you going to kill me, just like your President George Bush would do?” He spread his arms out to the side, the way people sometimes do when they are inviting you to throw the first punch.

“I want you to stop it. I want you to leave her alone.”

“I don’t care what you have to say. If she wants me to leave her alone, I want to hear her say it.”

We both turned to Aya, who had gotten somewhat lost as the conversation had turned to rapid English, and I’m not sure she knew exactly what we had been talking about. "Tell him," I said.
After a second of giving each of us confused looks, she turned to Tom and managed to say, “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“Okay, so everyone’s clear here now?” I asked. “We all understand each other?”

“You wanted to meet me last week,” he said. “You like foreign boys. You were very eager to play with me and Jim and…”

“That’s not true,” she said, more to me than to Tom. Than turning to him she said, “I never loved you. I love…” There was a brief moment of panic, as I suddenly thought my name might appear at the end of that sentence, and then I would have to tell her that she had gotten the wrong idea, and at the same time telling Tom to leave her alone, and simultaneously arguing with both of them. Fortunately she paused, and Tom cut her off.

“I don’t care about that. But you love to play with foreign boys and you haven’t been honest with me.”

“Okay, so we’re all done here?” I asked. “You’re going to leave her alone from now on?” I did my best to inject some authority into my voice, and perhaps that’s why Tom got so angry.

“This is none of your business,” he said. “You Americans always want to pick fights, don’t you? You think you can always charge into other people’s problems, but in Europe we’ve learned to be more civilized…” I thought he was acting pretty aggressive for someone who was advocating the virtues of not fighting, but I let it go, “…and if you Americans would just study history, you would realize that.”

“I know German history,” I answered.

He took a step towards me aggressively. “What did you say?”

“I said I’ve studied German history.” He asked me to repeat myself a third time, and I did so.

I was doing my best to act tough, but I’m not very good at fooling people, and I suspect he could see how nervous I was. Maybe that’s why he asked me to repeat myself 3 times, because he figured eventually I would break down and lose my cool. I did my best to keep my voice steady though.
On the other hand, given his heavily accented English, maybe he legitimately didn’t understand me the first couple times. Or maybe he was just trying to buy time to think, because even after the third repetition he seemed unsure of what to say in response.

“Oh, yes, well, and what are you?”

“I’m an American.”

“No, I mean you’re blood. All Americans have European blood.”

“I’m Dutch.”
I had an idea of where this was all going. He was going to talk about all the atrocities in Dutch history, and then say that I could no more hold him responsible for German history than he could hold me responsible for Dutch history. And then I would say something like, yeah, okay, but if that’s your point than let’s knock off all this “You stupid American” crap.

And suddenly I had a feeling that this was not a conversation I wanted to be in at this time. Indeed I probably should have realized this before, but in an intense conversation sometimes you just get so caught up in what you are saying at the moment, you forget to think about where the conversation as a whole is headed.

“But that’s not the point,” I added. I think he had the same realization about the same time as me, because he quickly agreed.
“No, you’re right. That’s not the point.”

“So you’re going to leave her alone from now on?” I asked

“I’m through with her,” he said. “I just feel sorry for you now. If you keep seeing her, she’s going to get you into trouble.” And he went back into the coffee shop.

I walked Aya the rest of the way to the train. Aya had not understood much of what Tom and I had been saying to each other, and was concerned that he had been saying awful things about her. “Whatever he said about me it isn’t true,” she said. “You mustn’t believe him.” I thought about trying to explain what we had actually been arguing about, but it all seemed so stupid now that I just told her not to worry. I wouldn’t believe anything he said.

“I want to go back with you,” she said.

“I’ve got to get to class,” I answered. “Besides Tom is still around, so it’s not a good idea for you to hang around here. Just get on the train.” And that was the end of that incident.

I retold the story a couple different times that night. “I think I know that person,” someone said. “He hangs out at the beer hall.” Great. Beer Hall is the local hang out for foreigners here. If he hangs out there often, I’m going to have to find a new place to frequent.

“I can’t believe a German person would bring up the subject of history” I heard several times. Or “He really set himself up for that one, didn’t he?”
I don’t really understand it either. Who knows what was going through his head. All I can say is that it did indeed happen. A German person tried to shame me about my American history. My only regret is that I didn’t say, “You bloody Kraut. Do you want me to kick your ass for you like we did in the last two World Wars?” But people always think of the ultimate comeback after the situation is over.
Or maybe it’s just as well I didn’t say that. I can never make up my mind.

I retold the story to Shoko on the telephone that night, and she had a good laugh. “You must have been quite happy when he brought up the subject of history,” she said. “A pity he didn’t bring up the French Revolution. You would really have been in your element then.” She later added, “Really, the most bizarre things seem to happen to you. You’re the only person I know who would be just about to fight someone, and then get into a debate about history.”

And just when I was beginning to think that my “Calvin College History Major with a European Concentration” would never come in useful.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Saint Patrick's Day

This past Saturday some of the Irish JETs in the area organized a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration in Nagoya city. It’s a little bit early, but the Irish ambassador was in the area, so they decided to do the celebration when he was there.

I had heard about it through the grapevine and decided to go and check it out. Although I have a car, whenever I go into Nagoya city I always take the train to avoid Nagoya city traffic.

Unlike Ajimu, there is actually a train station in my town now. But it doesn't run very frequently. It is just a little local train that runs once an hour to Ogaki city, and then from Ogaki I can take the Japan Railway train anywhere I want.

Since I never figured out the train schedule, I just drop into the train station randomly and hope I won’t have to wait long for the next train. I stopped off at a convenience store along the way to buy a notepad in case I had a lot of time to kill.

As I walked toward the station, I saw two girls sitting on the station steps. They saw me and became very excited, giggling to each other and waving at me. I was congratulating myself on how popular I was with the ladies, until I got a little bit closer and realized they were my students.

They weren't dressed in their school uniforms, which was one reason I didn't recognize them from a distance. Although I could see that their faces still looked very young when I got up close, they were (as 15 year old girls sometimes do) trying every trick they knew to make them look older; fashionable clothing, lots of make up, etc.

I must have just missed the previous train, because I had to wait a whole hour before the next train came. I passed the time by talking to my students, but I began to feel a little uneasy as other people were walking by the station, especially the way my students were dressed. I wished I had a sign around my neck that said, “I actually do know them from school. I’m not some guy who usually tries and picks up 15 year old girls dressed like this.”

To that end I tried to keep the conversation focused on school. I asked them if they were studying a lot this weekend, but they said that since they were graduating next week, they were through studying. One was going to a high school in Ogaki the following year; the other one was going to work in a bakery. High School is not mandatory education in Japan, and students who have low test scores will often get a job right out of junior high instead of going on to High School. It’s one of the sad things about Japan. So much of your future is already decided by the time you hit 15.

They were playing on their cell phones the whole time they were talking to me, mostly e-mailing friends I think. I would have thought it slightly rude if I had not been in Japan for so long and become accustomed to it. At one point they asked me what my mail address was for my cell phone.

I hesitated while I wondered weather it was appropriate in Japan for teachers to exchange cell phone mail addresses with students. My experience seemed to indicate that it was, as I had known teachers (both in Ajimu and here in Gifu) who talked to their students often by cell phone. It always had seemed a little sketchy to me, but maybe it was all innocent enough. And if it was innocent, than perhaps by acting like it was inappropriate I would put an idea into the heads of the students that hadn't been there before, and thus alter the dynamics of the relationship.

So I gave them my cell phone address. After all it was just my e-mail address, it wasn't actually my telephone number. If things got inappropriate I could always just ignore the e-mails.

But I soon began to think it had been a mistake. One of the girls took a call on her cell phone, and excitedly said to her friend, “Yeah, we’re still at the train station. And you’ll never guess who is here with us. And he actually taught us his mail address.”

People were still coming and going. Another student came in on her bike to chat. “Joel gave us his address,” one of the girls bragged.
“He did not.”
“Yes he did.”
“No way. He did not.”
“He did too. Look, here it is.”
Definitely a bad idea, I thought to myself.

I began to envy my students. Here I was going all the way to Nagoya to meet friends, and they had all their friends right next to them. If they wanted to meet a friend all they had to do was go across they street. Whenever they went outside or went to the train station they saw their friends, and they were always meeting up and talking.

Of course since I was a new arrival in the town it would be unreasonable to expect I would have the same social network as the locals. But because I went to private schools, even when I was a junior high school student I never had the experience of living close to my classmates. I think the Japanese tradition of community schools is why Japanese people have life long bonds with the people they went to junior high school with, and I have lost touch with every single person I went to junior high school with.

One of the girls took a call on her cell phone, and started shouting at whoever was on the other end of the line. I had the awkward feeling of listening into someone else’s argument, until I realized they were talking about me.

“He is too here! … Yes he is! … And he taught me his cell phone address. … No I’m not lying! … I am not!”

Pretty soon the phone was shoved in my face. “Here say something in English,” the girl said.
I backed away. “No, I think I’ll pass,” I said, not wanting to get involved.

“It’s my sister. She doesn't believe you’re here. Say something in English to her.” I took the phone and said hello into it, then handed it back. “See,” she yelled into the phone. Apparently the sister was not convinced, because the argument continued and I was soon asked to say something else. “How much longer until the train comes again?” I asked.

Eventually the train did come. I said good-bye to my students at Ogaki station and headed into Nagoya. By the time I got to the celebrations, the parade had already started, but I went and caught up with them.

For some reason I had expected the parade to be composed of all Irish people, but I guess the Irish community in Japan isn't that large, so the majority of marchers in the parade were Japanese people dressed up in green uniforms and wearing Irish flags. It seemed a little surreal, but I guess as the saying goes, everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.
…Um, even though it wasn't technically Saint Patrick’s Day yet.

Even among the non-Japanese people, a fair amount of the Caucasians in the parade were other Americans like myself. So the actual Irish people took great effort to point themselves out. “This is Andy,” someone said to me. “He’s actually Irish.”

Despite the fact that Andy’s accent left little doubt he was in fact Irish, I played along with the joke. “What, actually Irish? You mean like from Ireland? Not descended from Irish people, but actually Irish?”

Andy didn't seem to get it. “Of course I’m Irish, why does everyone keep asking that? In the town I live in here in Japan, I’m the only Irish person in my town I am. I’m so Irish I had me own parade in my town, that’s how Irish I am.”

I met the person who had invited me to the parade and apologized to her. “I really met to come earlier, but I had to wait an hour for the train to come in my town.” She was sympathetic, and I added, “and the worst part was I had to wait with my students.”

She seemed confused. “I actually like spending time with my students. Don’t you?”
I mumbled some reply and changed the subject.

After the parade, the festivities turned into bar hopping. We were given a map of all the participating bars, and the challenge was to make it to each bar, and have a drink at each.

I went to the first couple bars, but I’m not much of a drinker, and besides I sometimes feel a little lost in the crowd. I began thinking of all the other things I usually do in Nagoya…English book stores, internet cafes…And made some excuse and ducked out.

Almost immediately I began to feel guilty for being anti-social. I spend a lot of time alone in Japan, always wishing I was with friends. And then when I do get together with a bunch of people, sometimes I can’t wait to get away. It seems like I’m always wishing I was doing something other than what I'm doing at the moment.

I wandered around the streets of Nagoya for a while. I went into the English bookstore, looked around, and then went back out onto the street. I was getting weird looks from everyone everywhere I went, more so than usual. Then I remembered I still had an Irish flag painted on my face. I went into the bathroom to wash it off. It didn't completely come off, leaving a bit of a smudged blur on my cheek.

True to form, I soon found myself wishing I was in a group again, and called up my friends to see which bar they were at. They gave me the name, but I didn't know where it was. Japan’s streets are famous for being confusing, and I knew it would be almost impossible to find the bar with out aid, but I gave it my best shot anyway. I wandered through the club district of Nagoya for a couple hours, ignoring the calls of hawkers trying to get me into this or that club. Eventually I decided even if I did find the bar my friends would have long moved on anyway. Besides, because I had to change trains at Ogaki, I couldn't stay out too late or I’d miss the last train back to my town. So I called it a night and headed back.

More Bizzare News from Japan

Mothers pressuring their teen-age daughters to get breast implants.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Blogging and Me

I’ve gotten a few e-mails recently indicating that many of you have noticed the past couple weeks this blog has been a bit more active than usual.

Despite all appearances, I actually still do not have regular Internet access. I have however been lucky enough to receive a lap top computer from a co-worker who didn’t need it anymore. It’s a bit of an old clunker, something that his older brother used in university way back when. It’s not state of the art by any means, and there are a lot of things it can’t do, but for my purposes all I really need is a word processor.

I’m hoping to get internet hooked up to my apartment pretty soon, but in the mean time I’m using this computer to write up blog entries, copy them on to disc and transfer them to my blog when I’m in an internet cafe, and then time the blog to post one entry a day. (I guess I should admit that when I say “time the blog” I really mean, “sneak on to the internet at work, even though I’m really not supposed to, for just long enough to press the post button on the blog. I haven’t figured out how to time the blog yet.)

In the past I used to post only about once a week, and have a lot of diverse subjects all under one post. I’m trying to pace myself a little more now, and breaking up different subjects into different posts, and then just spread out my posting. Also I am writing more now that I have the computer. So if it has seemed like things have been a little post happy here at joelswagman.blogspot.com, that’s why.

Also until I get regular internet access sorted out, the e-mail correspondence is still going to be a little slow from my end. So if some of you have been wondering why I’ve been posting on this blog so much, but not returning your e-mails, that’s why. But keep sending the e-mails anyway and I’ll do my best to knock out replies.

For the moment I’m very glad to have this computer, and so have been doing a lot of writing. How long I’ll keep this up is hard to say. Obviously, like all bloggers, it depends on my schedule. When things get really busy and I actually have exciting things to write about, I probably won’t have time to update this blog. Alas, the ultimate irony of our blogging times.

But for the moment I have the time, and writing on this blog does a lot to keep up my sanity. I’m sure anyone who has spent time abroad can identify with this a little. A friend who had spent time in China once told me he understood perfectly well why I kept up this blog. When you are in a foreign country, and surrounded by people who don’t speak your language, you tend to develop a strong inner dialogue in your head just because your thoughts don’t usually have an outlet in normal conversation. So it really helps to write stuff down. If I had been in Japan ten years ago I probably would have kept a journal instead, but a blog is better because I can communicate with friends at the same time. Assuming they stop by to read it of course

So if you have the time, drop by this blog and see what I’m up to. I’ll keep writing either way.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Grudge
In the past I've used this weblog to comment extensively on Hollywood movies with Japanese themes. This one took me a bit by surprise, because I didn't even know about it until I saw the review in the Japan times. My interest sufficiently arisen, I went this weekend to check it out.

With last year's remake of the Japanese horror film "The Ring", Japanese horror has recently been attracting Hollywood's attention. However, as this article in the Japan times indicates, "The Grudge" is an interesting Hollywood remake because it keeps the Japanese setting the same. The difference is that in the American remake, it is American ex-patriots living in Japan who are terrorized by the ghosts.

A Japanese friend once explained to me why she thought Japanese horror films were scarier than American horror films. She said that in a Japanese horror film the setting was very familiar to her, and so the film seemed so much scarier because it seemed more related to her every day life.

If that is true, if we are scared by what is familiar, than this combination of horror film and "lost in translation" type Americans bumbling around Japan is an interesting choice. Obviously the American audience can't identify with the Japanese setting, and the Japanese audience can't identify with the American protagonists.

And yet the damn thing flies. I thought it was one of the scariest films I've seen in a long time. Although, as an American living in Japan, I guess I'm one of the few people who can actually identify with the setting. So I'd be curious on other people's takes on the movie. What did you think?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Pornography and Me

One of the neighboring towns to me is called Sekigahara. It is a small town, but of great historical importance. Many years ago a huge battle was fought there, which determined the fate of all Japan.

Or something like that. No one seems to know too clearly. Even my Japanese friends seem to be a little sketchy on their history, and can’t really tell me what the reasons for, or the results of, this battle were. Everyone agrees it was really important though.

But to me, whenever I hear the name, “Sekigahara”, it always sounds like a dirty word to me, because it reminds me of “Sekuhara”, the Japanese word for Sexual Harassment.

To me it seems natural that one should make close associations between these words. After all it’s only a couple syllables difference. But I am the only one who thinks so, at least when I am with Japanese friends.

My sister, who has studied linguistics, was telling me once that when people learn a second language they approach it differently than native speakers. Because native speakers just talk without even thinking, they don’t notice the same things that foreign speakers do when they study the language. Often people studying a language will think certain words resemble each other, but the thought will never enter the head of a native speaker.

I believe this is one of those cases. I was in the car with a couple Japanese friends, and we were passing through Sekigahara, and I said, “Hey, have you ever noticed that the words ‘Sekigahara’ and ‘Sekuhara’ sound almost the same?”

“What!” exclaimed the guy driving the car. “No they don’t.”

“Sekigahara, Sekuhara, Sekigahara, Sekuhara, they sound the same,” I said.

“No! Don’t ever say that to someone who lives in Sekigahara. They’ll get really angry.”

This case was actually a bit of a rarity because the Japanese person in the back seat took my side. “Sekigahara, Sekuhara. Hey, he’s right, they do sound alike,” she said.

The driver briefly put his hands over his ears. “Stop it, stop it, they sound nothing alike.”

I continued the joke when Shoko came up to visit. She wanted to tour the historical sites of the area, so she suggested we go to Sekigahara. “Okay,” I said. “Even though I am already married, I find you very attractive.”

She looked at me sternly. “Okay, first of all those two words sound nothing alike. Secondly it’s not only married people who can be guilty of sexual harassment. You’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble if you think that just because you’re not married you don’t have to worry about sexual harassment.”

One day I went out for yakiniku (Korean style Barbeque) with a couple co-workers from the elementary school. One of them mentioned “Sekigahara,” and I said, “What? You’re going to sexual harass someone?”

He gave me a confused look, until the other guy explained, “Oh, Joel thinks Sekigahara and Sekuhara sound alike.” They both agreed the two words sounded nothing alike but then the conversation spun off, as conversations sometimes do, into topics of sexual harassment. As they got more and more into what they were saying, there Japanese became more and more rapid and I became increasingly excluded from the conversation until I think they briefly forgot I was there.

I caught bits and pieces of it though. One of them was describing to the other a video game in which you can play a train molester. You wander around the train and molest women I guess. “It’s really cool,” he said. “You enter a room and a woman says, ‘What are you doing here?’ and the character replies, ‘I came here to molest you.’ It sounds really cool when he says it.”

In order to remind them of my presence, I pretended to pick up on the last bit and repeated it slowly as if it were some sample Japanese sentence I was learning for class. “I…am…here…to…molest…you.”

They both almost jumped out of their seats to correct me. “No, no, you don’t need to learn that. In fact better not to say it. And whatever you do, don’t say it at school.”

Later, one of them offered to lend the game to me.
I think every male foreigner who goes to Japan has had the experience of a Japanese male co-worker offering him pornography at one time or another. There is not the same stigma attached to pornography in Japan that there is in the West, so people don’t feel any embarrassment about admitting to using it. In fact my first Japanese girlfriend reacted with great surprise upon learning there was no pornography in my apartment. “All men have pornography,” she said in disbelief.

I don’t consider myself a puritan, but I do try and stay away from things that seem to exploit women. Of course I’m no angel either. I’ve flipped through dirty magazines before and even bought them on two separate occasions. I like to think that is a low enough number that it can be chalked up to youthful curiosity, but I guess I’ll leave that verdict for others to decide. Oh, and while I’m confessing, I also once bought a “Guns and Girls” magazine, featuring Japanese women in skimpy outfits holding different models of guns, and thus combining two things I’m at least theoretically opposed to. But since I bought it only as a gag gift for a friend, I don’t think that counts.

But at any rate, looking at pictures of women is one thing. A video game that encourages molesting them on the train seems to be crossing a different line. Especially in Japan where train molesters are a big problem. So the question is now do I stand on a pedestal and say I don’t want the game and he should be ashamed of himself, or do I act polite about it, accept the game, and then later return it unused.

Once when I was in Ajimu I was at a party at the neighbors house. During the course of the night I was asked if I liked girls, and I said I did, at which point they offered to take me to the soap lands in Beppu. “Soap lands” is a way Japanese entrepreneurs have gotten around the no prostitution laws by establishing a business where the girl is only paid to wash you, and then anything else that happens is just between you and the girl. It might be unfair to say there is no stigma attached to patronizing this place, but it is much less than it would be in the West. For example after an end of the year drinking party many school teachers while often head to the soaps. I’ve never experienced this myself, but other male ALTs will occasionally have stories about being invited by their co-workers, or in the case of female ALTs (like Monika), suddenly finding that all their male co-workers have disappeared for the soaps.

Anyway, at that point I had been in Japan long enough to know this invitation wasn’t serious, because Japanese often casually throw out invitations they have no intention of following up on. But I had also been in Japan long enough to know that in small town Ajimu I had no secrets, and if I gave a yes answer it might well be all over the town by the end of the week. And yet I was searching for a way out of it the invitation that wouldn’t look like I was condemning them.

So I decided to pretend I was a religious puritan, and gave an answer about sex being forbidden. Boy did that ever kill the party. In my defense, I was drinking at the time I told them I was a puritan. I like to think that if I had been stone cold sober I could have thought of something better, even though to this day I still don’t know what that response would have been.

At any rate, any attempts to safe guard my reputation turned out to be a lost cause. One night Ryan and I both went out drinking with some of the teachers from Ajimu Junior High School. One of them asked me what I usually do on the weekends. Before I had a chance to answer, Ryan said, "He always goes to the soaps."

"What! I do not!"

"Don't let him deny it, he always goes."

The Japanese teachers started to chuckle, and say things like, "I thought so," or "Yeah, he seemed like the kind of guy who would always go to the soaps."

"What are you doing?" I exclaimed to Ryan.

"Oh, let them have their fun," Ryan said to me. I was horrified, especially since there were a couple female teachers at Ajimu Junior High School that I was slightly keen on at the time, and I knew this would ruin my chances. But the more emphatically I denied these charges, the more guilty I looked. In the end the only thing I could do was retaliate by saying Ryan went so often he got a discounted rate. By the end of the night, both of our reputations were in tatters.

Returning to the story of the “Train Molester” video game: in the end, for right or for wrong, I took the path of least resistance and just graciously accepted the video game, and then returned it a week later and told him I didn’t get a chance to use it.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Perils of Dating a Foreigner

Because of small town gossip, Shoko doesn’t tell a lot of people she’s dating an American. But occasionally with close friends she can trust, she’ll tell stories about me.

One of these friends said to her, “You’re foreign boyfriend sounds like the foreign boyfriend in the book, ‘My Darling is a Foreigner’.”

The book (and it’s sequel ‘My Darling is a Foreigner 2’) have both been best sellers in Japan. Actually, strictly speaking it is a comic book, but in Japan comic books are not something relegated to adolescent boys, but actually the preferred literary medium for all ages and sexes. So a best selling comic book has the same cultural significance as a best selling book would over here.

As the title implies, the book is an autobiographical tale of a Japanese woman who describes for the rest of the nation what it is like to date one of these mythical foreign creatures.

In fact the very title of the book is very indicative of Japanese attitudes. Instead of “My Darling is an American,” or “My Darling is Italian,” the book is simply titled, “My Darling is a Foreigner,” as is there were only two types of people in the world, Japanese, and Foreigners.

Shoko, after having been told that I resembled the foreigner in this book, decided to read it for herself. And she was amazed by the similarities.

“Japanese people like to stereotype,” she admitted to me. “So some Japanese people might read this book and think it applies to all foreigners. I don’t think that. But I do think it applies to you.”

Apparently the foreigner depicted in this book loved to talk about politics and social issues so much that he seemed incapable of normal small talk. At one point the author says to herself, “It’s good to talk about big issues, but it would be nice to have some normal conversation once in a while as well.”

The Foreigner is also perpetually distracted. He is always thinking of something else other than what he is doing at the time. If he is going on a walk or eating dinner or talking to someone, his mind is always wandering onto other topics.

Shoko thought this applied to me as well. When I was visiting her in Kyushu a couple weeks ago, we were talking when she abruptly asked me what I was thinking about. “Nothing,” I said. “I’m just talking to you.”

“But you’re always thinking of other things when you’re talking to me,” she said. “You’re just like that foreigner in the book.”

In truth I had been thinking about the movie I had seen the previous night, but I was reluctant to admit that so I said, “Well, us Americans are always thinking. We like to think. That’s why all the best inventions come from America.”

A brief debate about who was smarter, Japanese or Americans, followed that comment. Shoko again made reference to the book. The foreigner in the book, even though he was always thinking about big issues, lacked the ability to do simple things like work the washing machine, or figure out the train schedule. Comparisons were again made to me.

On a slightly different note, I thought this story was also amusing and informative about Japanese attitudes. Like I mentioned above, Shoko does her best to keep me a secret but sometimes, despite her best efforts, the secret gets out. Like one time she was drinking with some friends from work. One of them, after becoming intoxicated, lost his sense of discretion and told the others that Shoko was dating a foreigner. Shoko scolded him, but it was too late. The others had a good laugh about it. “Is he black?” one of them asked.

“No, he’s not,” Shoko replied.
“That’s too bad. It would have been even funnier if he was black.”