Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Well, yesterday morning the 8 students left to go back to Japan, so now I finally have some free time on my hands again and can update this blog. What to say about the experience?
As I said in my previous post, really every day of this homestay experience could well have been a long post in its own right. Now that the whole homestay is over, I'll try and condense my stories and thoughts into something readable.
First of all some back ground, because I guess I haven't kept everyone updated on this as well as I could have. Because I went to Sapporo this summer to study Japanese, I had used up just about all my vacation time from my job. When I asked to go home for Christmas, the board of education pointed out that I had no vacation time left. At which point I came up with the idea of taking some students back to America with me, and thus turning it into a "working vacation."
I decided to accept students on a first come first serve basis. We sent out notices to the Junior high and high school, and ended up having 6 students sign up. I had previously said five students was the limit, but when only 6 students signed up, I figured I could sneak another student in.
Later the board of Education wanted to insert 2 University students as well, bringing the total up to eight students. At this point my mother started getting a little worried about spacial concerns, having 8 Japanese students all staying at the Swagman house. This was in addition to all the Swagman Children coming home for the holidays (besides me I have two younger sisters, and one younger brother). It was no doubt a very packed house for the ten days everyone was over here. At the same time though the Japanese students were all great and were a pleasure to have around the house, and I think everyone in my family was sorry to see them go.
Being entrusted to take these eight students to a foreign country and chaperon them for ten days was the most responsibility I have ever been given in my life. As we were preparing for this homestay back in Japan, I began to realize the awesome amount of trust these students parents were placing in me, and I was determined to live up to it. The first few days of the homestay especially I was out to prove myself as a responsible adult.
And I got off to a terrible start. At the airport in Osaka there were at least two occasions when I almost left a student behind at a restaurant or a book store. The university students (who were in many ways more responsible than me, even though they were 3 and 6 years younger) had to stop me on both occasions to make sure we didn't leave anyone behind. After that I started counting heads before we went anywhere, but it was an embarrassing start to the event.
The weather in Kyushu is much warmer than Michigan, so I wanted to make sure everyone brought warm winter coats. And everyone did. Except me. I, the Michigan native, forgot my winter coat in Japan, even though all the kids remembered theirs.
But actually, as those of you who have been in West Michigan for the past week know, the weather was unseasonably warm. In Kyushu we rarely get snow, and so I've been telling stories about Michigan winters for the past two years, and I think I perhaps lost a bit of credibility when the students arrived and there was barely any snow on the ground.
The two university students could speak quite good English. The High school and junior high school students not so much, so I was doing a lot of translating this week. How good is my Japanese? Honestly I think it depends on the day. This may be true of anyone learning a foreign language. I have days when I can string sentences together with ease, and days when I have to work really hard to say the most elementary of things. I had good days and bad days this past week. Some days I got sick of speaking in Japanese, and talked to the kids mostly in English. Somedays I was trying to show off what I knew, and spoke mostly in Japanese. I did a lot of switching back and forth between the two languages, and sometimes mixed up what person goes with what language. Often I would say something in English to a student, get a blank look from them, and then have to repeat it in Japanese. And once I accidentally addressed a question in Japanese to my mother, which got a big laugh from my students.
We had a busy week. The students spent one day at Calvin Christian high school, one day at the Inner City Christian Federation (teaching origami to the children there). We went to Woodland Mall and River town crossings mall and the IMAX theater, and we went to Meijers 4 times. I took them to Lake Michigan for a day, and Cannonsburg ski area for a day, and we played laser tag.
Also they went to church with our family the first Sunday. None of the students are Christians, but I told them it was an important part of American culture. The next Sunday we skipped Church, and I told them skipping Church is also an important aspect of American culture, so I think they got a well rounded experience.
And of course Christmas.
Christmas exists in Japan, but it isn't a major holiday. The comparison I like to make is with Valentines day in the U.S. Everyone knows when in it is and the decorations are up in the stores, but you don't get the day off from work or school, and don't usually do anything special.
So the students were very amazed that Christmas was such a big deal in the United States. And we showed them the whole Christmas experience: Two big Christmas dinners on two separate days with both sets of relatives, a family gift exchange (don't worry, we gave the Japanese students gifts as well) and we took them to our Church's Christmas eve service. One student in particular told me she had no idea Christmas was so important in America.
It was really a lot of fun having the students here for the past ten days. I enjoyed showing them around my hometown, and showing them what life is like in America. But as you can imagine, I haven't had any time to myself while they were here. And I hadn't really had any time to reconnect with any friends.
I ran into an old friend from Calvin at the Griffins Hockey game (which I also took my students too). I won't post her name online without her permission, but lets just call her M.G.. She said she knew I was back in town, but wasn't going to call me because she thought I would be too busy and wouldn't want to hang out with her.
Well M.G., I was pretty busy, but the students have gone back now, so I have some free time until January 10, when I head back to Japan. And am interested in getting in touch with you and the rest of the old gang, so give me a call (I'm at my parents house), or e-mail me (joelswagman@yahoo.com). Hope to see a lot of the old gang in the next few days.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Philosophy of web logging
I've discovered a little irony about web logging recently. When nothing exciting is happening to me, I have lots of time to write on this web log, but not too much to say. On the other hand, when I'm really busy and doing interesting things, then I don't have time to update the weblog.
The reason I haven't updated in a week is because I'm pretty busy right now. I'm back in Grand Rapids, with 8 Japanese students, conducting a one week homestay over the holidays. (Perhaps you remember I had a couple of previous posts about getting ready for this homestay).
And really each day of this week so far has yielded a number of interesting stories that I really wish I had time to put up on this blog. Each day by itself should be a full entry.
Unfortunately all I have time for right now is this lame message apologizing for not posting more messages. And this will probably be true until the end of the week. At which time, hopefully I can put together a nice summary of the week and post it here.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Last Samurai
I saw "The last Samurai" this weekend, which is yet another Hollywood film dealing with Japan. Since I wrote at length about "Kill Bill" in this regard, I feel I would be somewhat inconsistent if I didn't put down a few thoughts about "The Last Samurai".
Those of you who read my posting on "Kill Bill" will recall I at first wrote about how there was curiously very little "Buzz" about the movie. Given Japan's love affair with American movies, and given that "Kill Bill" was a big blockbuster American movie that dealt with Japan, I expected more of a "buzz". And then you'll recall I updated myself a couple days later and said that I was perhaps mistaken, and that perhaps I had just been oblivious to "The buzz". (Perhaps I'm slowly loosing my command of the English language, as I'm using "buzz" here for lack of a better word, but I trust everyone knows what I mean.)
Anyway, this was not the case with "The Last Samurai", as this movie was clearly aggressively marketed to the Japanese audience. There were posters and advertisements everywhere. Most of my Japanese friends have seen it or are planning on seeing it, so I imagine the movie must be making a lot of money in Japan. The advertisements in Japan also feature the Japanese cast on equal billing with Tom Cruise, as the movie contains several actors who are domestically quite well known.
I don't know how many people know this, but the movie was filmed in New Zealand, not Japan. Fair enough as New Zealand is a very scenic area, and seems to be a popular place to film movies recently. However the tragic fact is that it is more than just a case of New Zealand being more scenic. This movie could not have been filmed in Japan, as there are virtually no untouched natural areas left.
Alexander Kerr has written about this problem at length in his book, "Dogs and Demons", which is recommend reading for anyone interested in modern Japan. Although Alex Kerr should be taken with a grain of salt, because reading his book one gets the impression that there are absolutely no beautiful places left in Japan. And in fact the country side where I live is still very beautiful. BUT, Kerr is right when he says there is almost nowhere you can go where you don't see some sort of eyesore of modernization: a telephone poll, power lines sticking out, some pointless road somewhere.
As Kerr mentions in his book, this is a problem for the Japanese film industry, and they usually have to resort to either fake indoor sets, or just hope the viewer will bear with the anachronisms of power lines being visible in the background of Samurai movies.
Now, as to the historical accuracy of the movie:
The Japanese friend I saw the movie with said it was very strange for Ken Watanabe's character to be speaking English, because at that time Samurai lords did not study such things, and it was the work of people beneath them to deal with translating. Also the Emperor would not have spoken English during that time. Although you could argue that this is nit-picking....
So on to the bigger problem of the Meiji Restoration and it's depiction in this movie:
I'll try not to go on too long about this because #1) people much smarter than me have already written about this movie and it's accuracy (or lack there of) in depicting the Meiji Restoration and the Samurai Rebellion. (For instance check out Tom from Guam's post here. He's a fellow history buff and has some thoughts on this movie)
and #2) The Meiji Restoration is very complicated, and I'm no expert. In fact all my knowledge is based on a couple courses I took at University, which I'm doing my best to remember now. But these disclaimers aside, here are my thoughts:
The Meiji Restoration was undoubtedly a mixed bag. It brought some good things, and it brought some bad things, and some of Japan's culture was lost during it and of course this is always a tragic thing. You could also argue that the Meiji Restoration was responsible for the rise of Fascism in Japan (as Mr. Tom from Guam hints at). Personally I think this is unfair, just as it would be unfair to say that the advocates of a unified Germany in the 19th Century were responsible for Hitler in the 20th Century.
Lenin wrote about the Meiji Revolution, and compared it to the French Revolution in Europe, and I think some of the comparisons he made were accurate. Like the French Revolution, the Meiji Revolution was primarily a bourgeois Revolution, and it furthered the interest of the bourgeois class. And so we should have no disillusions that, as the movie shows, the Meiji revolution was primarily in the interest of the capitalists. But as any good Marxist knows, the conditions of the proletariat improve under the bourgeois revolution, because a modern capitalist state is still an improvement over feudalism. Lenin wrote that the Meiji Revolution showed Japan's revolutionary potential, and that the groundwork for becoming a socialist state had been created during the Meiji period.
It is easy to romanticize the Samurai, but during Japan's feudal period the lives of the common people were worthless, and the Samurai could kill them at will. The class system in ancient Japan also was extremely rigid, and the lowest class, "The Burakumin", were comparable to "The untouchables" in India. They did the most dirty work, and had absolutely no rights. There was no hope of advancement.
In short, Hollywood aside, no Japanese person wants to go back to the pre-Meiji feudal system. Although the code of the Samurai was lost during the Meiji restoration, a new value of equality replaced the rigid feudal class system. I think Tom Cruise was fighting on the wrong side of history in the movie.
And so far all the Japanese people I've talked to share this view. But perhaps the film makers were counting on the fact that the average American viewer would be unfamiliar with Japanese history, and could be persuaded to sympathize with the Samurai rebellion.
As we left the movie theater, I asked my Japanese friend what she thought about the movies depiction of Japanese history. She answered that of course the movie was from the Samurai's point of view, and glossed over the reality of the actual Samurai feudal system. But it was possible to enjoy the movie by forgetting about history, and pretending to sympathize with the Samurai. And that is the key to enjoying the movie I think.

Video Version

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Okay, as many of you already noticed, the previous post is a story I stole from Jared English's weblog, and just inserted my own name into it. Cheers to everyone who caught on and e-mailed me. It's Jared's story, it didn't really happen to me.
But I do have a couple stories of my own:
This week the Junior high school students are doing a work experience program, where they spend two days working at some sort of job in order to learn about the real world or something like that. Anyway, nobody told me about it, and I was at the Elementary school early in the week, so I didn't realize the Junior High School students had infiltrated all the gas stations and convenience stores in Ajimu.
So you can imagine my embarrassment when I went to the check out counter at the convenience store with my arms full of pornography and condoms......
I'm kidding of course. Just thought I'd throw that in there to help keep things in perspective in case anyone is too appalled at what comes next.

I went to the cash register to pay for my food, and to my surprise my students came out to work the register. And it was very obvious that my dinner that night was going to consist mostly of candy bars and chips, with a salad and a hamburger (I got the salad to try and balance things out).
In the Junior high school there is a big campaign to try and get the kids to eat healthier. Posters are everywhere, health classes take up school time, etc. So I felt a little silly about my purchase. I said something about how I usually only buy healthy things from this store, and then quickly left.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Have you ever seen someone else's small child in a restaurant and started making faces at it to make it smile? Well, I, Joel Swagman, always try doing this. The other night I, Joel Swagman, living in Japan, made a child cry. Ooops! The family didn't know who was sitting in the adjacent booth making faces, so they got up and looked at me. I acted like I had no clue what was going on (sort of reminds me of Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" when the teacher is looking for culprits to blame for Flick's tongue being stuck to the pole). This one guy stood up and sat down at least 3 times to get a good look at me. I imagine his thought process was:

"Who's making my baby cry?" Stand up. "Hey it's a foreigner". Sit down. "Well he cant make my baby cry. Who does he think he is?" Stand up. Scowl. Sit down. "I wonder how big his nose is." Stand up. "No wonder the baby cried". Sit down.

Ok, maybe not. But I imagine it couldn't have been much different. :-)

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

More linguistic trip ups
Things have been busy at Ajimu Junior High School recently. In the past week, two different teachers have gotten married. However when this was explained to me today, I must have missed a preposition or something because I thought they had gotten married to each other.
Which seems plausible enough, right? I thought some secret office romance had been going on, and I had just been left out of the loop.
Except that both of the teachers in question were men. Which I should have realized, except I'm such rubbish with names that I didn't catch it when this was first mentioned. Needless to say my assumption that they married each other gave every one a good laugh.
The first time it was an honest mistake. The rest of the day I just played dumb. When someone would say, "Did you know Magumatsu Sensei and Abe Sensei got married last week?" I would respond with something like, "Can you do that in Japan?" or "Wow, Japan is so great!" And then I'd watch them rush to correct me.
Tombo Times
Tombo Times is the English newspaper in Oita Prefecture. It comes out once a month, and is mostly composed of contributions from us JETs. It's also available on line.
A couple interesting things. First of all the most recent issue contains a review of "Kill Bill" which contains some of the same observations I posted on this Web Log last month. So just in case anyone thought I was just making up stuff, you can check it out at this link. Just scroll down to the "Kill Bill" review.
And my article on Tezuka Osamu was published in last month's issue. You can see it at this link here.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Well, my apologies to all my loyal readers who keep coming to this site, and finding nothing new posted this week.
I was working on a new post (slash manifesto) about "Why I love and Hate teaching in the Primary Schools" but that has sputtered out now. Oh, and I know the link to the Onion Article doesn't work anymore, since they took down the article. So, sorry about that. But those of you who did check the link when it was still up and running, that was a pretty funny article, wasn't it? It made me laugh. (Update: the article is still available in the archives here).
Anyway, not too much new and exciting around here. A normal type weekend. Did a lot of sleeping. Went to a house party on Sunday night. Keep checking in here for all the new and exciting details about my really exciting life.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Another Link
I ran across this article from "The Onion", which I thought was really funny. Of course I realize this is dangerous ground, because there's a lot of funny stuff from "The Onion", and I can't start linking to them all. But, since this article has to do with blogging, I thought it was somewhat appropriate. Here's the link: Mom finds out about Blog

In the interest of full disclosure I should add that my mom does read this web log, and everything on here does go through the "What will my mom think about this" filter.
Oh, and speaking of full disclosure, I should admit that I didn't find this article myself, but it was listed on the blog server help page.

And I don't know if anyone else checked CNN's web-page today, but this story confirmed a lot of my stereo-types about the South. I haven't spent much time in the south though. Can anyone else tell me how often this sort of thing happens?
Participant at KKK initiation wounded after shots fired into sky

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Because of various changes in my schedule this week, I was at the elementary schools four times in one week. One of the elementary schools is busy practicing a play, which will be performed in English, Japanese, and "Ajimu-Ben".
"Ben" means local dialect. In America we don't really have it. We have broad regional dialects to a certain degree (Southern Accent, West coast Accent), but nothing like in Japan.
A good comparison is England. I've never been to England, but my British friends tell me they can place someone pretty accurately by their accent. In fact, they say if you are good at it, you can place someone within a block or two of their house. (That sounds a little hard to swallow to me too. I suspect there may be some exaggeration going on here, but that's what they told me).
The reason of course is that England has much longer history, and is historically a less mobile society than America, so strong regional dialects were able to develop in each town, and in some cases, in each neighborhood. Japan is the same, only more so.
For instance, my little town of Ajimu, with 8,000 people, has it's own dialect. I have a friend from Usa (only one town over) who works in the Ajimu winery, and has trouble understanding the old people in Ajimu because of the local dialect. (Only one town over!)
Anyway, the Elementary school play is being conducted in standard Japanese, Ajimu-Ben, and English. I help out with the English. The "Ajimu-Ben" part is mostly as a joke, and then the standard Japanese is also added.
The vice-principle (kyoto sensei in Japanese) has been helping me learn Ajimu-Ben. Mostly for humor value, because it is very limited in it's practical uses, but I can get a laugh out of the office every time I manage to say something in the local dialect.
At the board of Education, the woman seated across from me often makes fun of my bad Japanese, so the Kyoto Sensei of the elementary school taught me how to say, "You're acting like a cow," in Ajimu-Ben, so I could have something to throw back at her.
The other staff at the elementary school thought this was funny, but were also a little worried. One of them said, "You better be careful Kyoto. They are going to be able to guess who taught him that." (The Kyoto has a bit of a reputation I think.) The Kyoto Sensei was undisturbed, and taught me how to say, "oh just shut up!" in Ajimu-Ben. Again, the rest of the staff thought this was funny, but were cautious. "Kyoto, pretty soon you won't be able to go into the Board of Education," someone else cautioned.
Indeed, as predicted, when I went back to the board of Education and tried out my new "Ajimu-Ben", the first thing they said was, "The Kyoto sensei at Sada Elementary taught you that, didn't he?" I thought for a moment, and then ratted him out. (Which brings me to a point of advice some of you have learned already. Never trust me with any sensitive information.)
Although I suspect that secretly the Kyoto Sensei was all too happy to take credit for teaching me. He has that kind of personality.
Since there are no dryers in Japan, I always hang my clothes outside to dry. As the weather is getting cold, a lot of the insects have been taking shelter inside my clothing. My first year in Japan, I had the rather unpleasant experience of having a large, hairy spider jump out of my pants as I was putting them on. Since then, I always shake out my clothing before putting it on.
This morning I had four (4!) bugs known as "kamemushi" fall out of my pants. We don't have "kamemushi" in Michigan. Literally the name means "Turtle bug" but I suspect they are in English what is known as "stink bugs". They have a rather strong odor they emit when disturbed. My clothing was infected with the smell, but as it was early in the morning, I couldn't be bothered to worry about it, and just put the pants on anyway.
The odor made me extremely unpopular in the Junior high school today. The students complained about my smell whenever I came over to their desk to help them with their homework.
I'm not sure how the locals deal with the stink bugs, but they must have someway to keep them away from their clothing. But that's part of the problem with living in a new place, you can't do anything right.
Another example: Japan is sometimes called "a mold culture." This is because mold thrives in the moist climate of Japan. Therefore traditional Japanese houses and clothing were all designed with the intent of preventing mold. (Thus, "mold culture". The entire culture is shaped by the need to prevent mold.)
Even today in modern Japan mold is still a huge problem. The locals here in Ajimu make sure to always keep their windows open to ventilate the houses (even in cold weather), and buy various devices that help suck up the moisture in the air.
But no one told me about any of this when I first came here. It was only after I had mold growing on my walls, my clothing, and my books, that I realized this was a problem that had to be addressed.
Anyway, I try and look at today as a learning experience. And I did learn a lot of new Japanese phrases today, like, "What is that smell?" and "Someone in this room smells like stink bugs. Who is it?"

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I accidentally glued my slipper to my foot the other day.
In the Japanese schools, we have to take our shoes off before we enter. Most people wear slippers in the school, but the school slippers provided are too small, so on days when I can remember, I just bring my own slippers.
The slippers go through a lot a wear and tear, and yesterday, the sole of one of them fell halfway off, causing it to drag along the ground with every step I took. I knew the slippers were finished, but I thought maybe I could get another half a day's use out of them. So, I found a glue stick in the teachers lounge, and starting applying that to the inside of the sole.
Another teacher saw me, and said that the glue stick wasn't going to hold. She rummaged through the drawers, and got out something simply labeled, "Bond". I applied it very liberally to the inside of the sole.
The slipper itself was very thin, so the minute I stepped into it again, I could feel the "bond" had soaked through to the other side. I didn't care too much at the time as long as it held together.
And, as you can guess, the slipper ended up glued to my foot. It might have been only glued to my sock, except thatI had a whole in my sock that day, so it ended up stuck to my foot.
Not a big deal. It didn't require a trip to the hospital or anything. In fact I was able to peel the slipper off of my foot, but the slipper was completely destroyed in the process as I tugged to get it off.
Christmas gift ideas for me: new slippers. maybe some socks.

Monday, November 17, 2003

A Place Called Usa
Perhaps you have noticed that from time to time I refer to the town of Usa. I don't live in Usa, but it's only one town over. It's a town of about 50,000, so not a metropolis by any means. But, compared to my town of Ajimu, population 8,000, it is a lot bigger. And it has a fair amount of bars and Karaoke places to hang out in (unlike Ajimu). So on any given night, I'm far more likely to make the drive over to Usa, then to stay in Ajimu.
Of course Usa is a Japanese word, usually written in Japanese characters. But, as you can see, when it is transferred into Roman letters, it shares same spelling as the good old U.S. of A. This leads to a lot of bad jokes. For instance a resident of Usa, after consuming a bit of alcohol, might lean over to me and say, "I too am from the U.S.A. See, Usa. U.S.A." The first time I heard this, I thought it was worth a smile. Two years later, I'm ready to punch the next bastard who makes that damn joke again.
There is also a rumor among us expatriates that Usa was so named so that exports from the town of Usa could be stamped, "made in the USA." I never really believed this rumor because Usa is such a small town, nothing is really produced inside it. A drive through Usa reveals just lots and lots of rice fields. (Although again, it is bigger than Ajimu, and has a few fun bars to hang out in.)
But, wasting time on the internet the other day, I found this rumor mentioned on Snopes, the Urban Legends website. I don't know if anyone else regularly visits the Snopes website, but I was very surprised to see Usa was mentioned there. Since Snopes is an American website, it means this rumor about Usa is worldwide. I was surprised that anyone outside of Oita Prefecture even knew about our little town of Usa.
Anyway, here is the link

And well we're wasting time: the same sight also has an interesting, if rather disturbing, article on the Japanese Lolita complex. (Here's the link: Lolita Complex)
The Lolita problem in Japan is perhaps somewhat akin to the Gun violence problem in America in the sense that it is a big social problem, but it is something you hear about mostly on the news as opposed to observe in person. For instance, since I've been here in Japan there has been a lot of things reported in the news. There are problems with under-age prostitution, and high school girls sleeping with older men in exchange for gifts. And in my own prefecture, there has been a number of incidents last year of teachers who were caught sleeping with their high school students. A stricter code of conduct for teachers in Oita Prefecture was created as a result of this.
But have I observed any of this personally? Well as the article mentions, Japanese women in their 20s and 30s will often act like young girls, and this is very noticeable. But as far as sketchy relationships between older men and young girls, I haven't seen any of this in Ajimu. (Although some of the literature available at the local convenience store is very disturbing.)
Christianity in Japan:
Ajimu Elementary school is preparing for the Culture Festival next month. As part of the Human Rights curriculum in the Japanese schools, the culture festival usually features a drama dealing with problems of discrimination in Japan. This year the topic is persecution of Japanese Christians during the Edo Period. I was called in today to answer the children's questions about Christianity, and also to show them how to pray for the purpose of the drama.
There is a lot of ignorance about Christianity in Japan, and most of what is known is gleamed from American movies. Now, I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but for a predominately Protestant country, we have a lot of Catholic imagery in our movies. (I suspect because the rituals of Catholicism make a better visual on the big screen). Thus Japanese people associate Catholic rituals with American Christianity.
For instance whenever the subject of Christianity or prayer comes up, a Japanese person will usually gesture by crossing themselves the way Catholics always do in the movies. When I first came to Japan, I tried to explain that we Protestants don't usually make the sign of the cross when we pray. But most Japanese people don't know the difference between Catholics and Protestants, so this usually leads to discussion about the reformation that is very difficult to conduct across the language barrier.
The other difficulty is Japan, as a country which has historically been isolated from the rest of the world, often has a lot of stereotypes about the outside world. These stereo types can be very difficult to break. It's almost impossible to convince a Japanese person that Protestants don't cross themselves, when that Japanese person "knows" for a fact that all Christians make the sign of the cross when praying.
So, this is a battle I gave up on a long time ago. If a Japanese person asks me if I pray everyday, and then makes the cross sign, I just go along with it and say, yes, I do make the cross sign all the time when I pray. I also go along with all the other stereotypes about Christians that come from Hollywood. For instance, we all wear crosses around our neck, which we pull out at various times during the day and clutch with both hands while we kiss it.
And today followed much the same pattern. When I was asked to teach the children how to pray, I just taught them to cross themselves like they see in the movies. There was a question about whether to cross from the right shoulder or the left shoulder, and I didn't know, so I just guessed, but pretended I knew what I was talking. And when asked what they are supposed to say while they cross ourselves, I just made that up as well. ("In the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen"--I think that's right, but I too am just going by Hollywood movies).
I'm a little nervous about how much time I added to my stay in purgatory today by lying about prayer, but it was so much easier to just tell them what they expected to hear. Even in my own English conversation classes, where I am preparing the Junior high school students for a trip to America, I followed this pattern. We were talking about Church, and after initially trying to explain that we don't cross ourselves in my church, I just gave up on it.
So, I'm a little worried my credibility will be at stake when these Junior High school students come to America with me this December. So if it's not too much to ask, I need a little help from anyone who happens to encounter me and these students over Christmas break. If you could just please cross yourselves from time to time, and every once and a while pull out a cross from around your neck and kiss it, I would really appreciate it.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Mid year conference:
Twice during the school year, all of us ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in Oita prefecture have a mid year conference. (And yes, we do call it a mid-year conference, despite the fact that we have it two points during the school year. I know it is a bit of a misnomer, so no need to e-mail me to point this out (this means you, Gerken)).
Anyway, Tuesday and Wednesday was our "mid-year conference." This thing is widely regarded by most of us as a waste of time. We just go to workshops on various topics presented by other ALTs, and it very quickly turns into a gripe session about our jobs. I think all of us realize that we do lead very privileged lives here in Japan, but it is to some extent human nature to complain. So when we are all thrown into a room and asked to talk about our jobs, it is inevitable that everyone starts complaining.
I led a workshop on "Educating Global Issues in the Classroom." Because of the inflexibility of the curriculum, and because of the low English level, it is definitely a challenge to introduce social issues into the English class, but I talked about various things I had tried, and the talk went fairly successful.
The rest of the workshops I was just a participant in. I was in one workshop on "lesson planning." In this workshop, we were divided into smaller groups, and asked to prepare a lesson on the passive voice, using the text book we were provided.
The purpose of this lesson was to try and take a rather dull passage from the text book, and make it interesting. This is a daily challenge we face in the classroom, because the text book is like the Bible in the Japanese schools, and so we always have to teach from the text book.
In this case, the textbook used a passage about Okinawa to illustrate examples of the passive voice. I suggested to my group that we try and invite some actually Okinawans into the classroom to make the text seem more alive. Beppu University in Oita prefecture actually has a high number of students from Okinawa, and I've met some of them before. Many of them actually speak good English, so it seemed like a good idea to bring some of them into the English class room.
My group was receptive to the idea, but as we got farther and farther into the idea of Okinawan culture and guest speakers, we strayed far from the original intent of introducing the passive voice. The moderator of the work shop was quick to criticize this when we presented our ideas to the rest of the work shop.
And again, these workshops are all run by fellow ALTs, so we all know each other socially. Although I wasn't presenting for our group, the moderator singled me out as the reason our group had been led astray. "This was Joel Swagman's idea, wasn't it?"
I tried to play innocent. "I'm just sitting here. This was a group idea," I replied.
"This sounds like something you would think off," he said. He then added, "It's a shame your going to be leaving next year. We'll be loosing one of the greatest minds of our ALT generation."
I'm always curious as to what other people really think of me. I suppose all of us are. Apparently I'm developing a reputation as someone with a unique thought process. Hopefully that's a good thing.
Oh-and one more thing: the key note speech for this whole conference was delivered by a graduate of Hope College. These West Michigan connections pop up all over the place.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

More about the Australians:
Actually it's been a pretty busy past week. Saturday and Sunday I was busy playing tour guide for the visiting Rotary club from Australia as they traveled around Oita prefecture.
How did I get into such a position? The answer is a long and boring story, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don't care. But the Usa city Rotary club here in Japan has developed an exchange with a sister city rotary club in Australia. Every two years, either the Usa Rotarians or the Australian Rotarians visit each other's city for sight seeing and cultural exchange.
I don't live in Usa, but someone from the Usa Rotary club is friends with the directory of the Ajimu Board of Education, where I work, and so I was asked to help show the Australians around for the weekend.
What exactly is a rotary club? As it was explained to me, it's basically a business men's social club. It was started in the United States, but it is now world wide. To be eligible for membership, you have to either own a business, or be in a management level position. The members meet for socializing and community service projects.
Of course it is wrong to stereo-type people, but if you were inclined to do some stereo-typing, what kind of people would you think would be in this kind of club? Close your eyes and try to imagine what these Australians were like. You'd probably stereo type something like fat, middle-aged, white men, who like to smoke cigars while complaining about Unions and minorities (in the Australian case, complaining about Aborigines on Welfare).
Now to be fair, I never observed any of these Rotarians smoking. But everything else you might stereotype was pretty dead on. And it was very apparent from what they said that they did not travel in the most politically correct circles in Australia. They always used the word "Negro" to refer to people of African descent, and seemed very surprise when I said we didn't use that word in America anymore. One of the wives said (in a sarcastic voice), "Well what do you call them then? African Americans?"
I answered, yes, sometimes, or even just "black" was preferable to "negro." At this point someone said, "I guess that's just like Australia. We call Aborigines 'Dark Greens.'"
I actually thought for a moment this was the preferred term. "Do you really?" I asked.
"Well, not to their faces of course mate," he answered.
So they said a lot of stupid things, but all in all not a bad group. Perhaps because they were from a rural area their accents were somewhat thicker than my other Australian friends in Japan. I did have trouble understanding them. And there was a bit of a generation gap that perhaps made it difficult to find common interests in conversation. But a couple of them made me laugh. One of them had been to Japan in the 1960s, and when I asked he was able to give me a few stories about seeing anti-war demonstrations and the Zengakuren (student movement).
By Saturday night, I had gotten a bit sick of the whole thing. Again, they weren't really a bad group, but there was a generation gap, and I couldn't help but think of all the parties I was missing by being with these Australians. (Murphy's law, the one weekend I was playing tour guide, there were about 4 different parties I was invited to. I suspect this next weekend, when I'm going to be free, nothing will be going on. )
So, I was thinking about trying to wiggle out of my commitment on Sunday, and meet up with my friends instead, but then I decided that perhaps the problem was just my attitude, and if I let myself, I could have a good time sight seeing with the Australians. Also on Saturday night I met the daughter of one of the Usa Rotarians, and was informed she would be joining us the next day. That might have had some small part on my change of attitude as well.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Language problems
By far my biggest language problem is communicating with the Japanese, but sometimes other English speakers also present difficulties. This weekend I had volunteered to help show the Australian rotary club around my town. I was also supposed to act as a translator, which was a disaster because my Japanese is no where up to translating standards. (I have a hard enough time just getting by myself, without translating for somebody else.) And with the thick down under accents, I had a hard time understanding the Australians sometimes as well.
After lunch, someone was handing out ice cream, and I refused saying, "No thank you, I'm stuffed."
There was a pause in the conversation, then one of the Australians asked, "what did you just say?" I repeated myself, and they broke out laughing. "If you come to Australia, don't ever say that," one of the women told me.

And then I remembered a previous conversation I had with a British friend, who was talking about his sexual frustrations with his girlfriend. "She probably wants to be stuffed by me just as much as I want to stuff her, but the opportunity has not presented itself." I had understood the imagery well enough at the time, but I guess it had not occurred to me this was a phrase I would want to be cautious about.
So needless to say I felt a bit embarrassed when I realized what I had said. It was one point for the Australians.
But I was able to laugh at them later, when they were talking about "the negro on TV last night." And I told them if they ever went to America, it was best to avoid using that word.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Kill Bill update
I was talking to a some friends last night, and a couple things were brought to my attention in relation to my previous post on "Kill Bill".
1): I've been living under a rock. My friends who teach in the high school say that all their students are super excited about the new “Kill Bill” movie. Partly because high school students always like these kind of violent movies, but the Japanese theme of the movie is also important to them. “Kill Bill” is filled with a lot of little references to Japanese cinema, which were all over my head, but not lost on the Japanese viewers. Also, I guess Tarantino has been on Japanese TV and Japanese game shows recently, because of this new interest in him and his movie. I suppose since I work in the Junior high and elementary schools, a certain amount of my ignorance towards the attitudes of High schoolers can be forgiven. I don’t really have a good excuse for not knowing Tarantino has been on Japanese TV regularly. Just goes to show I don’t always know what I’m talking about, and you should always take what I say with a grain of salt. But I still think there was some truth in my previous post, so I've chosen to write this addendum rather than go back and edit the original. The two different posts should perhaps balance each other out.
2): Also (and this is interesting), apparently the Japanese version of "Kill Bill" contains some scenes that were deemed too violent for American audiences. Specifically I guess the animation sequence was longer and more violent in the Japanese version. Also the climatic fight sequence at the end was apparently in black and white in the American movie theaters. Is this right? It was in color here in Japan. And also twice as long, with again more blood and violence than the American version.
So, if you read my previous “Kill Bill” post, and you thought, “Boy, he’s getting a bit squeamish, isn't he? I saw the movie, and I didn't think the violence was that bad.” Then this is possibly because we saw two different movies.
Which brings me to a bit of social commentary: Do you remember the movie, “Bowling for Columbine” when Michael Moore makes the point that it is kind of silly to blame violent media for the violent crime in America, when Europe and Japan have the same violent media, and a fraction of the violent crime? It was a good point I thought, and this is a good example. Another good example is the Japanese film “Battle Royale”, which was a huge hit in Japan. But because of the graphic depictions of high school students killing each other, no major distributor in the US would touch it, and it was essentially unreleaseable in the US. And yet Japan has barely any violent crime, and violent crime in the US is off the charts. Just some food for thought.
Although to be fair, violent crime in Japan has gone up slightly in recent years (still nothing compared to the US, but it has gone up slightly). And some politicians in Japan have blamed violent media like “Battle Royale”. Also refer to point number one--always take everything I say with a grain of salt, because I don’t always know what I’m talking about.
Finally quick movie trivia: Did you know the really evil high school girl in “Kill Bill” was played by the same actress who played the really evil high school girl in “Battle Royale”? No you probably didn't, because it’s almost impossible to find a copy of “Battle Royale” in the US. But it's true.
[My spell checker is telling me "unreleaseable" isn't a real word, but I'm using it anyway].

Kill Bill Update update: Since I originally posted this, I did some surfing around on-line, and confirmed what my friends had told me. Indeed, as mentioned above, the Japanese version is more violent and bloody. You can surf the net and see for yourself if you like. I found conflicting reasons given on line, so I'm not sure which is accurate but either
1) It was trimmed down to secure an R rating in the US or
2) It was decided the Japanese audiences could handle the extra blood and gore better

Video Version

Book recommendations
So when I was in Fukuoka the other day, I took advantage of being in a big city to pick up some English books. I got the new Michael Moore book, "Dude, where's my country?" and Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying liars who tell them. A fair and balanced look at the right."
I guess I'm just a sucker for a good polemic. But although I'm dumb enough to like this stuff, I am smart enough to take it with a grain of salt. I realize that Michael Moore is "The Rush Limbaugh of the left" and probably every bit as sneaky and misleading as Rush. But Al Franken's book was really interesting.
Al Franken essentially goes through a lot of the stuff written by Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, etc, and points out all the sneaky tricks they use. Now again, I'm smart enough to realize he's picking on the weakest links in the right wing chain here. (Ann Coulter? Does anyone take her seriously?) And I realize that someone on the right could probably write a similar book about the idiots on the left.
But, it is interesting the way he shows all the sneaky tricks that these people use, such as slight of hands with footnotes and misleading phrases . And being aware of all these tricks that are out there I think leads to good critical reading skills, whether one wants to critique the right or the left. So for that reason, I recommend this book to anyone, right or left.
That reason, and it's just pretty funny. One of the few books that made me laugh out loud when I was just sitting alone in my apartment reading it.

Video Version

Halloween party was this Saturday. Now in Japan no one really celebrates Halloween except for us expats, and we had a little party at Tropicoco's. (Tropicoco's is a Mexican bar here in Usa, at which I frequently hear a lot of Salsa music-see previous post). And it wasn't just foreigners, a lot of Japanese people got into the fun as well.
Last year I went as George Bush, and tried to do some political humor, but unfortunately I'm not as clever and quick witted as I like to think I am, and most of my little jokes died. This year I was planning on doing the same thing. I had the Bush mask all ready to go, but at the last minute I decided wearing that suffocating mask all night was more trouble than it was worth, and I decided to just go without a costume.
Have you ever been to a Halloween party in which you're the only one without a costume on? You feel pretty stupid, don't you? I tried to make up for my lack of costume by just turning on the old Swagman charm. Although I did feel a little bit out of place, I didn't let that stop me from having a good time.
I don't usually drink at these events, and as the night gets late, a sober driver is often a very popular person. I ended up agreeing to give 3 different people rides home. I'm a nice guy and don't mind doing this usually, but it does mean all 4 of us have to agree to leave at the same time, which can be kind of a head ache. And especially when someone has been drinking, it can be very little difficult to pry them away from the party. It was after 3 AM by the time we got everyone together and out of there.
Dropping off my last friend, she invited me in for a cup of tea. (Honestly, it was just a cup of tea!). Sometimes it's the subtle things in life that really make a huge difference. She lives in an apartment on the second floor, and like me she lives out in the countryside. There is very little light pollution, so we could see the stars very clearly from her balcony. It had been raining early that day, and it was still a bit misty, but we could see very well. And, also from her balcony, we could see all the roofs of the neighboring houses in the mist. And in the country side, the traditional Japanese architecture is still used, so it was a beautiful 4 AM view of these Japanese country houses in the mist with the stars out.

The next day was also a bit rainy. I had plans to go to another "Okagura" (See a few posts ago for a description of Okagura). This particular Okagura was supposed to be at the five storied Pagoda in Ajimu.
This Pagoda itself is pretty interesting. Usually outside of Kyoto you don't see these big beautiful Pagoda structures, and certainly not in Kyushu, but this one was built by a wealthy resident of Ajimu about 20 years ago, as his attempt to buy his way into heaven (according to town legend). So again, it's only 20 years old, not particularly historic, but it looks like an old beautiful building.
Apparently the Okagura had been called off because of the rain, which was slightly embarrassing for me because I had invited a friend to come out and watch it with me, and when we arrived no one was there. It was about 6 PM, already dark out, with the mist from the day's rain still around. But the pagoda had lights around it, so we could still see it through the mist. Really beautiful seeing it at night through the fog. And with no one else around, it was quiet and peaceful. Subtle things I guess.
Kill Bill
So I saw the new "Kill Bill" movie this weekend in Fukuoka. (Which is just recently opened in Japan). Because it is an hour drive to the nearest movie theater, and because movies are so expensive in Japan, I very rarely go through the trouble of seeing anything in the theaters. In fact, I can count on my hands the number of times I've gone to the theaters in the 2 plus years I've been in Japan now.
But I thought I had to see this movie, as a long time Quentin Tarantino fan, I felt I had to......
No that's a lie. The truth is I'm more of a band wagon fan. I started getting into his stuff in high school, when everyone thought he was the coolest thing ever. And my favorite film of his is "Jackie Brown", which all the "real" Tarantino fans aren't so hot on.
But I admit his films are pretty clever. And since a lot of "Kill Bill" took place in Japan, I was curious to see how this was done.
Japanese people, like people all over the world, are in love with Hollywood and American movies. And at times can get pretty excited when their own country is referenced in an American movie.
I myself have taken a new interest in "Japan as it is depicted in American movies" since I arrived here. All those references to Japan which used to go in one ear and out the other suddenly make me sit up and take notice. And unfortunately, I've noticed that the way Japanese, and Asians in general, are portrayed in Hollywood is often in either a villain role, or stereo typical role (Japanese tourist with camera, etc). So I've got a new issue to whine about now, but perhaps I'll save my rantings for another post.
Anyway, I was really expecting a lot of hype in Japan about the new "Kill Bill" movie, since it does deal a lot with Japan. And to be fair the movie is doing pretty well in Japan. All my Japanese friends of around the same age have either seen it already or want to see it. (As with in America, Tarantino's ultra-violent style doesn't appeal to the older people so much). And the theater I went to was certainly filled to capacity.
But again, given the love affair with hollywood in Japan, I was expecting more excitement about how prominently Japan is featured in a big blockbuster American movie. For instance, I mentioned the movie to a teacher at my school, who saw it on my recommendation. Now at the time I recommended it to her, I hadn't seen it yet. I just said it had already been out in America for a few weeks, and most of my friends seemed to really like it. She said she watched most of the movie with her hands over her face because of all the blood and killing, and I apologized for recommending it to her, but tried to talk about the Japanese connection. Wasn't a lot of the movie filmed in Tokyo? Wasn't a lot of the dialogue in Japanese? Weren't famous Japanese actors featured in the movie? And she just shrugged most of these off, which is typical of most of my conversations about this movie.
Another example: after leaving the theater, I was talking to the Japanese girl I had seen the movie with. Isn't it interesting how much Japanese language was in that American movie? And again, she just kind of shrugged it off as well.
Of course this was after I had seen the movie, so I can understand a little better at this point. It is yet another movie in which the Japanese are portrayed as villains. And rather clumsy buffoonish villains at that, given how easily Uma Therman slices through them.
Now, lest anyone think I'm getting a little overly sensitive in my old age, I do acknowledge that the movie is a satire. The unrealistic fight scenes in which Uma Therman slices through a whole army of Japanese Yakuza, and the ridiculous amounts of blood, are a satire on this genre movie. As well as a satire on how Japanese people are usually depicted in hollywood, everything from the Kato masks to the green hornet music is a satire.
I'm just saying that if there was a Japanese movie, with a Japanese protagonist slicing through as many Americans as easily, and a Japanese friend said to me, "Isn't it great that our movies are taking such an interest in your culture? Look, there was even some English and some American actors in that movie." I probably would have told him to go blow it out his ear.
But about the movie in general: A little too violent for my tastes. Although if I think about it, Tarantino's movies have always been pretty violent, huh? I mean that scene in "Reservoir Dogs" when the cop gets his ear cut off and is then doused with gasoline...that wasn't really easy to watch either, was it? But there was enough other clever stuff in that movie to make me overlook it, and to want to not only watch the movie, but re-watch it as well.
I thought in "Kill Bill" a lot of the cleverness was gone, and just the violence was left, but if you want to disagree with me, send me an e-mail (or comment below).
Of course with any Tarantino movie, half the fun is always the sound track. And in this case, Tarantino's choice of having Mexican sounding music in a lot of the scenes involving Japan seemed vaguely fitting to me. A lot of people might not think so, but it makes me think that Tarantino might have had a similar experience to mine: He was in Japan for an extended period of time, and then all of his friends joined a Salsa band, and he had to listen to them practice every damn night of the week, and for ever after Japan and Salsa music were fused together in his mind.
Oh, also I assume in the American theaters all the Japanese was subtitled. In the Japanese theaters the English was subtitled, but all the Japanese dialogue was left unsubtitled. So it was a bit of a struggle, but I'm fairly pleased with how much I was able to catch (if I can be allowed a moment of patting myself on the back).

Video Version

Town culture festival was this weekend. Among the art displayed was various wood carving stamps created by the junior high school students.
These stamps featured calligraphy that the students had carved into the wood, and then stamped onto a piece of paper. Many of them are very elaborate and beautiful Chinese characters. (Japan also uses the Chinese characters in their writing system). Some are a little more simply done, which I can really dig because that would have been me if I was a Japanese junior high school student.
And then there are a couple more interesting ones. One reads "I am a pervert." The other one says, "today, sex."
There's a saying that the longer you've been in Japan, the less you understand it. I'm somewhat inclined towards this view, so I'm not going to pretend I understand exactly what the limits of artistic freedom in the Junior high school are, but I certainly couldn't have gotten away with that in my school days. Although granted my education at a fundamentalist Christian school was probably a little bit stricter than most. I still remember in 8th grade a fight one of my classmates had with the art teacher over the words "party on." My classmate wanted to insert the words in her painting, but the art teacher told her "Christians don't say 'party on'".
So I guess it's hard to get stricter than that, but in Japan the limits do seem to be a bit more flexible. That would certainly explain the "dog taking a crap" theme that is present in a lot of the elementary school art that is also being displayed at the culture festival. I suspect one kid had the idea, and the rest just copied it. Or perhaps this is a common theme every year. Nonetheless, I think my elementary art teacher would have put a stop to it.
But getting back to the wood carvings. Apparently the limits are different, but I imagine the art teacher wasn't overjoyed to see it.
"So, Yosuke, what are we working on here? "
"You realize this is going up on display in the town festival? Everyone is going to see it?"
Sigh again.
"Okay, fine, whatever Yosuke."
I imagine it went something like that.
And on a similar theme: this is something that is actually dated from graduation this spring, but I only just noticed it while walking around the school on Friday (see previous post, I had a lot of spare time on Friday to look around the school and read things). The outgoing 6th grade students, who were entering Junior high school, each wrote a little touching tribute to their parents in the school newspaper. Next to each kid's smiling picture was a little note saying something like, "Mother, thank you for always encouraging me. I'm sorry I didn't study as hard as you wanted me too, but I'm going to do my best in Junior high school. Father, thank you for always teaching me how to be strong." Something touching like that.
But one kid wrote in his space, "Father, cigarettes are bad for your body. Please stop smoking so much. Mother, I'm sorry I didn't always listen to you." What was funny was that I knew the kid, and he had a pretty serious personality, so I doubt he was just taking the piss.
It made me laugh a bit on Friday. Imagine being that kid's father, opening the school paper to eagerly see what words of thanks his son had written him, and then finding that. And then at the next PTA meeting, having to put up with all those, "Hey, I read in the school paper you've been smoking a bit again, eh? How's that going?" comments.
So I had a little quiet laugh to myself reading this. When I saw the kid that afternoon in the hallway, I was tempted to ask him how his father's smoking was going, but I thought it might be perceived as making fun of him, and it was probably a little unprofessional to mock my students. I did point it out to some of the other teachers in the staff room, but to my disappointment, no one else found it as funny as me. "Does his father smoke a lot?" I asked one of the other teachers.
She read the paper, assumed a thoughtful position, and said, "hmmm, apparently."

Friday, October 31, 2003

My week in review:
Another slow week at the Junior High School. Between midterm tests and preparation for the culture festival, I had two days without classes. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what mood I'm in.
For instance Thursday I was feeling in a bit of a bookish mood, and was quite content to be left alone in the teacher’s lounge with a cup of coffee and my study materials. (Especially since the Japanese proficiency test is next month). By Friday I was feeling a bit more restless.
But when we don't have English class, I do find other things to keep me occupied. Helping out with the Home economics class (I mostly help with the eating part, but this week I also did some cooking with the students). I've been watching the rehearsals for the culture festival. And, I created my own stamp with my name written in its phonetic equivalent in Chinese Kanji characters (which are also used in Japan).
I had a couple good days at the Elementary school though. The games I brought with me took off really well. (Which doesn't always happen. Often my games will fall flat).

Sunday, October 26, 2003

I went to a record Museum yesterday in the town of Yufuin. Really fascinating place. They had all these old record players and phonographs dating back to even before the 20th century. Almost all of them were originally from America or England, so I suppose it was somewhat ironic for me to be learning about them in Japan, but they really had a nice collection assembled
We've all seen them in old movies, ect, but it was neat to actually see them up close. And the curator would play some of them for us. Fascinating the sounds these things could produce in the days before electricity. I expected them to have a static and fuzzy sound, but it was really quite clear.
Some of the phonographs with the large bells (those funnel shaped things where the sound comes out) on them had a very loud sound as well. And there was no volume control on it. It made me think it would be fun to own one of them. Imagine playing it late at night, and the neighbors are banging on the wall yelling, "Turn down your phonograph," but you would just have to shrug and say, "sorry, no volume control".
After the tour, they had a coffee shop with a bunch of old records, where we could pick anyone we wanted to listen to. In front of my Japanese friend I showed off my ability to pronounce the American musician's names correctly, and perhaps pretended to be more cultured than I was. But it was good fun
Spent Friday night hanging out with some Korean friends in Japan.
I've met several Korean friends at the free Japanese lessons given weekly at the international center, and have hit it off with a few of them. In fact this summer I was somewhat romantically involved with a Korean girl from this group, but that's a bit of a long story.
Anyway, it's interesting to hang out with them. In Japan there has been a long history of discrimination against the Korean residents in Japan. The group I hang out with is made up of only exchange students, not permanent residents of Japan, so no doubt they are coming at things from a different perspective than a long term resident.
But it is interesting to talk to them about how they are treated in Japan, because their experience seems to be the opposite of what I was lead to believe from the books I had read. Most Japanese people seem to be bending over backwards to please them, and none of them can recall any incidents of discrimination.
I am somewhat reminded of Angela Davis' Autobiography. In her autobiography, Angela Davis recalls how she was somewhat apprehensive about attending a predominately white University, and was determined to always be on her guard against any racism she might encounter. Instead, she said, she found herself with almost the opposite problem, that white liberals were overly solicitous of their few black friends.
I suspect this might be what is happening in here. Perhaps a lot of Japanese people, in an effort to prove that they are not racist, are overly kind to the Korean people they encounter. This certainly seemed to be the case with the Korean girl I was seeing this summer. It was really hard to get a free night with her, because she had been taken in by a group of middle aged Japanese women, who all acted like her Japanese mother. These women were really looking out for her interests, and in addition to taking her out for dinner all the time, tried to solve any problems she might possibly encounter in Japan, to the point of even giving her extra spending cash to go shopping with.
And last year in Ajimu, during the international festival, a couple Korean exchange students came from Beppu University to do traditional Korean dances. And they were also really treated like royalty.
I've enjoyed discussing politics with the Korean students as well. I've read in the newspapers that the current Korean president, Roh, was popular with younger people but hated by the older people. My friends have confirmed at least the latter. All their parents hate Roh. They themselves are somewhat ambivalent.
The subject of the U.S. military in South Korea comes up from time to time as well. All of the Koreans I've talked to still fell very angry about the two South Korean girls killed last year by US military. And whenever we talk about the subject, the Kwangju massacre invariably comes up. Kwangju was South Korea's Tienanmen square. It occurred in the 1980s, before South Korea became a democracy. And it was done with U.S. approval. There are still a lot of sore feelings about this.
I had never heard about this before they brought it up, but have since researched it a bit on the internet. A good article about it can be found here:


Remember last year, when there were a lot of anti-U.S. protests in South Korea? Remember all the editorials that ran in US newspapers about that time? "These ungrateful Koreans, don't they appreciate all we've done for them, blah blah blah." How strange that this little detail about the Kwangju massacre was never mentioned in the US press.
Update on the Kancho: Lest any of you think I'm exaggerating or making this thing up, I have a collaborating source. This is taken from the September issue of the "Tombo Times" the English magazine in Oita prefecture.
The Tombo Times is on-line, but the newest issues have not yet been posted, so I thought I'd take a minute to copy the relevant segment on the Kancho. This is from an article entitled "Tombo Times Top Tips". It's advice to new English teachers arriving in the prefecture.
"Walking Bullseyes: In the eyes of Japanese children, from pre-school to post-pubescent, you are a walking target. Breasts will be grabbed, dicks slapped, and perhaps most bizarrely, children have a martial arts move involving joining their forefingers together and ramming them up your bum when you're least expecting it. Always be alert, and retaliation is frowned upon."
So you see I'm not making this thing up. (Although I suppose the more skeptical among you will just have to take my word for it that I didn't just make the above excerpt up. It came from the magazine, honest).
It is true though, retaliation is somewhat frowned upon. Japanese teachers can't understand why foreigner often get so upset when the kids Kancho them. It has been suggested to me by my Japanese co-workers that my "hat out the window" policy might be overkill, but I've decided it was time to draw the line somewhere. As a first year I was willing to put up with it, but now that I'm on my third year here, I just explain that I don't like Kancho.
As you can see I've been gradually figuring out how to do new things with this blog, and I now have some links posted on the sidebar, specifically to Jared English, Tom from Guam, and SwissmissRachel.
All of these are friends from Calvin College, and I think I can sum up all of their blogs the same way: if you don't know these folks, their blogs are probably of limited interest. If you do know them, then you don't need any extra prodding from me go to check them out.
I should note as a disclaimer that I have not been in e-mail contact recently with old Guamo, but I saw his link off of Jared's blog, and figured he wouldn't mind.
Also, I'm referring to Guam and Swissmiss by their nicknames, because they don't list their full names on their respective blogs, so I thought I'd respect their privacy.

Friday, October 24, 2003

My recommendations:
Check out these cartoons. A bit dated now, but pretty right on.
My week in review:
The junior high school students were taking mid-term tests this week, so I spent two days at the junior high school with nothing to do. Of course a little boring, but I've learned how to entertain myself on these days. Cracked the books and got some Japanese studying done, chatted in the teacher’s lounge, etc.
This Wednesday we had a soft ball match. Once every trimester (Japanese schools have 3 terms a year, not 2) all the teachers from all the schools in Ajimu gather for a sports tournament. The sport is always changing, but this term we played softball.
Since I teach at every school in Ajimu on one day or the other, I have mixed loyalties, but I played for Fukami Elementary, which was the school I was at on that particular day. Good fun, nobody takes these things too seriously. I was up to bat 3 times. Hit a single each time. And then each time got out before I made it back to home plate.
Elementary school visits: two kids cried this week (see previous post). Slightly above average, but not too bad. Good news is that “Kancho”s have gone down dramatically recently.
Kancho” is a Japanese prank of putting your hands together and ramming them into some one else’s rear end. It is very popular in the elementary schools. Although even Japanese teachers are not safe from this, foreign teachers are a favorite target.
Hard to swallow, but every one who has spent time in a Japanese elementary school will attest to the validity of what I’m saying. I know in the West, children would never get away with doing this to a teacher, but Japanese schools have different standards. The stereotype is that Japanese schools are stricter, but I like to think of it as just different. Some things are stricter, some things are more loose. I could give many examples of this principle, but I don’t want to get side tracked from my main point.
I've gone through various ways of trying to deal with the “kancho”. When I first arrived, I was trying to please everybody and be easy going about everything, so my first response was to laugh it off. “Oh, hey, got me again. Ha, ha, ha.”
After a while, I tried to communicate to the kids that I did not appreciate this behavior, but they seemed unwilling to understand that.
Then I went through a period of physical retaliation, but that had its limitations as well. Half hearted retaliation only seemed to encourage the kids, and of course I didn't want to really hurt them.
But at last I think I have found the solution. When I get a Kancho now, I usually throw the child's hat out the window. If the child isn't wearing a hat, I turn them over and take off their slippers and shoes and throw these out the window. I try and appear good-natured about the whole thing, smiling the whole time to let the child know I appreciate the fact that they are just playing a friendly Japanese joke, and that I am just making a friendly retaliation. At the same time, I try and make the retaliation enough to discourage them from repeated incidents. Especially since we've had rainy weather recently, the children really dislike having their clothing thrown out the window.
Since my new “hat out the window” policy, the number of repeat Kancho offenders has gone down dramatically.
Monkey sightings: Actually this week I didn't see any Monkeys myself. (Although I saw one last week, see last week’s post). But I have been asking around about it, and apparently there have been a lot of Monkey sightings recently within Ajimu. So they are around I guess, but in my two years here, last week was the first time I ever saw one in Ajimu. Elsewhere in the prefecture Monkeys can be quite plentiful though. Especially this place they call “Monkey Mountain.”

Thursday, October 23, 2003

I had two days at the elementary schools this week (as normal). And managed to make two kids cry during that time. That's slightly above average, but it is not unusual for a kid to burst into tears under my watch.
Some of it is unavoidable. For instance one of these kids started crying when he couldn't remember the English names for the animals we were studying that day.
And then some of it might be more avoidable. I was playing dodge ball with the kids during noon break. I started hiding behind some of them, and using them as shields. The kids told me this was against the rules, but I pretended not to understand.
One kid in particular I picked up and used as a shield. He appeared to be having a good time, and enjoying the humour of the situation. He was laughing, and calling out that he was a human being, and somewhat enjoying being the center of attention.
And then the ball hit him. He said he wasn't really out, because I had been holding him. A brief conference was held, and it was decided that because I was on his team, he couldn't use that as an excuse. At which point he promptly burst into tears.
I tried to apologize to him, but he refused to talk to me other than to call me "Mukatsuku" which means "a person who causes frustration".
Since I am the only foreigner these children interact with, I do try and take my role as an ambassador seriously, and usually try and avoid making them cry. But it was hard to avoid laughing while this boy was sulking about being called out in dodge ball.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

My beard:
Looked in the mirror this morning, and decided it still wasn't time. Growing in a little scraggly in parts, so I just shaved every thing off, and figured maybe I'd try again next year.
Cheers to Jared English for mentioning me on his blog. If any long lost friends get referred to this site by him, give me an e-mail at joelswagman@yahoo.com
I'd post a permanent link to my e-mail address on the sidebar, but I'm still trying to figure out how this thing works, so in the meantime.....

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

I went to okagura last night again. I've been seeing a lot of okagura recently. It is the okagura season, and okagura also seems to be very popular in the country side.
Okagura is a Shinto festival which coincides with harvest time, consisting of traditional Japanese dancing and music. The dancers act out a traditional Shinto story about a dragon that is killed with a magic sword. The dancing is mostly improvised, and the thing can drag on for hours. Most of the older men just sit around and get real drunk.
Every little neighborhood within Ajimu has its own Okagura. Last night I got invited by a co-worker from the board of Education to her neighborhood Okagura. It was in a small little neighborhood in the mountains far removed from the center of town.
Quite a beautiful place actually. The mountains are all carved out into little rice fields, somewhat difficult to describe if you haven't seen them, but it looks like a bunch of steps on the mountain. In a valley, between these step rice fields, was a temple hidden away, and they did the Okagura there. There are often times when I wished I lived in a bigger city for a variety of reasons, but this is one of those times where I'm really glad I live in the country.
I spent a lot of time arguing with the old men, who wanted me to drink Shochu with them (Japanese whiskey). On paper Japan has very strict drinking and driving laws, but in the country side these rules are frequently ignored, and in the very rural areas they might just as well not exist.
Japan is a drinking culture, and older people are by custom able to demand at times that younger people drink with them. (Perhaps that's a harsh way of putting it, but it is rude to refuse when an older person tells you to drink). These old men refused to believe that the fact that I was driving was a legitimate excuse for not drinking. Even when my co-worker intervened, they were still quite upset. Eventually I gave in and had a couple glasses.

Monday, October 20, 2003

My Weekend:
Nothing too exciting, but I'll throw it up here anyway.
Friday night we threw ourselves a celebration party with the money we won from the Dream Ball dance competition in Beppu (a dance competition I entered with some other foriegn and Japanese friends). Good fun.
Saturday I showed a Japanese friend of mine around the sites of my town in Ajimu. Although she has spent her whole life in Oita city, she had never been to Ajimu before, so I showed her around the waterfalls and such. It's getting a bit cool out these days, so it's not swimming weather anymore, but it was still nice to look at.
Saturday night I went to Ryan's house, where he had a party to watch the England vs. South Africa Rugby match. I'm not a big Rugby fan, and I don't have a particular allegiance to either team, but I always enjoy a good party. Much to the annoyance of some of the diehard Rugby fans in the room, I chatted through most of the game.
Sunday was a bit of a slow day, as Sunday's tend to be around here. There was a festival in Ajimu that I went to watch for a little bit, but the majority of the day was just spent lounging around the apartment.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

As we've been getting ready for the homestay, I've been doing lessons with the Junior high school students on American communication. I have a bilingual book (“Do as Americans Do”) that talks about American manners, and it is often quite funny to try and teach the kids from this book.
For instance, the book had a section on eye-contact. In Japan it is often disrespectful to make eye contact with superiors, but the book said that in America eye-contact is important in a conversation. But, the book cautioned, staring too intently can make the other person feel uncomfortable. So the book said a good rule of thumb is to try and make eye-contact 60% of the time during a conversation.
Perhaps good on paper, but you can imagine these kids practicing their English conversation, and trying to get the eye-contact just right at 60%. They were so frustrated.
Last night was a lesson on small talk. Small talk doesn't really exist in Japan in the sense you would never strike up a conversation with someone you don't know. I had the students pretend that they were waiting at the bus stop, and that they didn't know each other, and to come up with a conversation. They wrote it out, and then performed it. It really made me laugh, so I’m reproducing it here. Mistakes are of course uncorrected

Ryosuke; It sure is a nice day, isn't it?
Marie: Yes, it is.
Nozomi: Yes, and I heard on the radio that it’s going to stay like this.
Ryosuke: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Marie: Yes, I have two brothers and one sisters.
Nozomi: Me too. I have two sisters.
Ryosuke: Really? I have a sister. She is very fool. How about you?
Marie: Everyone too.
Nozomi: I think my sister is more fool than yours.
Ryosuke: Really? Good. Where do you live?
Marie: I live in Ajimu.
Nozomi: I live in Kamiichi in Ajimu.
Ryosuke: Really? I live in Ajimu too.

Perhaps you had to see the performance to really laugh about this. I endure a lot of mockery at the junior high school because of my bad Japanese, so I don’t feel too bad about enjoying the humor in their mistakes (I didn't laugh at this to their face obviously). That said, I could never have produced a dialogue like this in a foreign language when I was 15, so fair play to them.
I saw my first Monkey today in Ajimu.
I was playing tag and hike and go seek with the local neighborhood kids, as I sometimes do when I finish work. During a game of hike and go seek, I noticed a tree was swaying back and forth, and started asking which kid was climbing it. Of course it turned out to be the Monkey.
I knew there were Monkeys in other parts of the prefecture (most notably Monkey Mountain) But didn't know they were living in my town. And in fact this was literally just in the backyard of my apartment.
The kids were just as surprised as me, which indicates this is something of a rarity, and not just a case of me walking past monkeys every day on my way to work and not noticing.
The kids were very excited, and the monkey seemed interested in us too. He climbed down the tree a bit, and was pretty close to us at one point, and then retreated up to the higher branches, where he screeched a lot and jumped around.
The kids really wanted the monkey to come down and play. At first they tried to be really quiet and still to encourage the monkey to come down. They had a hard time achieving this (there was always some kid who couldn't be quiet, and then the other ones would make even more noise trying to hush him up). Failing that, some of them resorted to throwing fruit at the monkey, but I discouraged that. Eventually it got dark and we all went inside.
Last night I went out with Mike (the new Jet in town) on a tour of the back alleys in Ajimu.
Ajimu is a beautiful town, but it’s not known for it’s nightlife. Even on the weeknights, we rarely spend our time in Ajimu. We go one town over to Usa.
Mike was asking me the other day if there was any place at all to go in Ajimu, and I said there were a few places that were kind of hidden away in alleys. I suggested we spend a night exploring the local pubs in Ajimu.
There are actually quite a few little pubs and Karaoke bars hidden away on the side streets in Ajimu. None of them are visible off the main street, so you do have to explore the side roads a little bit to find them, but we found quite a few. Mike commented “Why are we driving to Usa every night when there is all this stuff right in Ajimu?”
And I thought, “Yeah, why am I driving all the way to Usa?” And then there was no one inside any of these places, and I remembered why I liked going to Usa.
We walked by several places, but only actually went in 3. All of them were small places with no one in them. We went in a Karaoke bar that had a drunk Japanese business man at the bar, but I'm convinced one of these comes standard with every Karaoke bar in Japan, so he doesn’t count.
The other two places had absolutely no one in them. Just us and the owner.
Beats me how these places stay in business. I think I'll still be making the drive to Usa most nights. On the other hand though, there is a bit of romance about these small, deserted pubs out in a small town like Ajimu in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice fields and mountains. Perhaps on a different night there might even be other people there, and we can observe the locals in their natural habitat. Small town life does fascinate me to a degree. Mike and I agreed to come back in the future and spend a few more nights exploring the pubs in Ajimu.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

This is the first entry, and I'm still not sure what I'm doing. A friend of mine pointed me to this service and I thought, "Hey, I'm an opinionated person who always likes to spout off his mouth. Why not start a blog."
More entries to follow as I figure out what exactly I'm doing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Zero Conditional

(TESOL Ideas and Worksheets Subdivisions)

* Zero Conditional Formation
Zero Conditional Board Race Slideshow

Abandoned Book Index

Giết Con Chim Nhại bởi Harper Lee (HUỲNH KIM OANH & PHẠM VIÊM PHƯƠNG dịch)
The Complete Stories of Oz by L. Frank Baum,
Vietnamese Stories for Language Learners by Tri C. Tran and Tram Le,
Wheelock's Latin by Frederic M. Wheelock,

From 2014
And my reading list graveyard for this year.  Here are the books I gave up on this year:
*Read Real Japanese Edited by Janet Ashby and Colloquial Cambodian by David Smyth.  (Part of me knew I should be keeping my language work up, as a language teacher after all.  But in the end these books got crowded out by other books for professional development.)
*The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 by Eric Hobsbawm.  (Despite the fact that I find Eric Hobsbawm to be a difficult read, these are considered classics in the field of history, and directly cover the area of history I'm most interested in.  So I tried to pick up the second book in his series, but got bogged down.  May someday try again in the future.)
* The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams. (After getting to know Henry Adams in A World on Fire, I decided to try reading his memoirs.  It was readable, but difficult, and when I found myself getting distracted by other books, this was one of the first extra books on my reading list to get discarded.  I may pick it up again someday.)
* Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory.  (After reading The Once and Future King, I went through a brief spell where I was really eager to tackle the original Thomas Malory.  But like Henry Adams, this was difficult and I gave up on it soon after getting distracted by other books.)
* The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart.  (Whisky, thanks for the recommendation.  I regret to say I've given up on it for the moment.  At the time I picked this up, I was juggling too many other books, and this book had too many characters and sub plots going on in it.  I decided to temporarily shelve it until I can find time when I can more fully devote my attention to it.)
* A History of Cambodia by David Chandler (While reading A Very Short History of the World, I was reminded once again of how little of world history I actually knew outside of Europe and America.  Since I was living in Cambodia, why not start with a history of Cambodia, I thought.  But then this book got crowded out in favor of other books on Cambodia I picked up.)
*Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine (Having decided that Thomas Paine was a historical figure I admired, I decided I wanted to get more in-depth with his writings.  But didn't quite stick with the book--at least not this year.  I might read it again at some future stage.)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. (Another book from my childhood that I've read an abridged version of, but someday mean to go back and read the whole thing.  But this year I've given up on it.  I'll have to come back to it another time.)

From 2016
Empire by Niall Ferguson
A co-worker recommended this book to me, and even lent me his copy, so I decided to give it a try.  I of course knew Niall Ferguson's reputation as a right wing polemicist, but I thought it was good to read books by authors I disagreed with every once and a while as sort of an intellectual exercise, and besides I was interested in the subject matter.
My co-worker also disagreed with Niall Ferguson's politics, but he said the book was interesting enough that it had fascinated him despite it's political tone.
I, however, was not so grabbed by Niall Ferguson's prose. I got a few pages into it, found I wasn't really captured by it, and that I had too many half-read books on my plate already, so I just gave it up.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Delta Reading List

Book Club Discussion Material Folder HERE

A Framework for Task-Based Learning by Jane Willis , Handout ,
About Language by Scott Thornbury,
An A-Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury (First Edition),
Beyond the Sentence by Scott Thornbury, RevisitedSlideshowHandout
Designing Language Courses: A Guide for Teachers by Kathleen Graves ,
Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers by Michael McCarthy, Slideshow
Grammar for English Language Teachers by Martin Parrott
English Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course by Peter Roach [Fourth Edition],
How Languages are Learned by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada [First Edition]
How Languages are Learned by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada [Third Edition] Slideshow
Implementing the Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis Slideshow
Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics by Jack C. Richards and Richard Schmidt (Third Edition)
Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (Third Edition)
Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition by Stephen D Krashen, Slideshow
Rules, Patterns and Words by Dave Willis, Slideshow, Reflections, Discussion Questions
Second Language Acquisition by Rod Ellis , Slideshow
Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill, Revisited , Slideshow ,
Speaking by Martin Bygate, Slideshow ,
Syllabus Design by David Nunan,
Teaching English as an International Language by Sandra Lee McKay,
Teaching Young Language Learners by Annamaria Pinter,
Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury,
Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching by Diane Larsen-Freeman [Second Edition] --Revisited, Slideshow ,
The English Verb by Michael Lewis Revisited, Slidshow
The Language Teaching Matrix by Jack C. Richards, RevisitedDiscussion Questions
The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis,
The Natural Approach by Stephen D. Krashen and Tracy D. Terrell
Uncovering Grammar by Scott Thornbury, Slideshow

Video Review Playlist Here