Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Fire Festival

Over the golden week holidays my town of Godo held its annual fire festival, which is the biggest festival held in my town.

I first went to check the festival out during the afternoon, and found it almost exactly like the town festivals I used to go to back in Ajimu. Lots of booths selling Japanese food and over-priced children’s toys, and lots of people just hanging around. And, as at the Ajimu festivals, the only people there seemed to be the old people and my junior high school students.

On some level I really enjoy seeing my students outside of school. I get a little sick of them sometimes in the classroom, but seeing them outside of school is like meeting a co-worker outside of work. You may get sick of seeing your co-worker everyday at work, but if you meet them in a different setting you forget about work and just see the enjoyable side of them.

It’s just like that seeing a student outside of the classroom setting. All I see is a smiling familiar face, and it’s like we’re old friends, and sometimes I almost forget how much older than them I am.

At the same time though there is always the constant reminder in the back of my head that they are only junior high students, and I am their teacher, and if I hang out with them too much it will seem like I a bit too desperate for friends. I hung out with some of the boys for a bit, but when they decided to practice their English by asking me questions about my sex life, I took that as my cue to leave.

(Whenever they start asking me questions about sex, I have a flashback to my own days as a junior high school student, when some of my classmates used to embarrass me in the same way: ask me direct questions about sex and then watch me squirm with embarrassment as I wasn’t sure how to answer. It’s somewhat discouraging when my students do it to me now, because I have this feeling that nothing has changed even though I am ten years older and now the teacher. I wonder what it is about my personality that causes people to ask me embarrassing questions.)

I encountered a couple groups of girls on my way back, and they seemed overjoyed to see me, but I’m always cautious about hanging out with female students in social settings. I said a few awkward greetings and then left the festival.

The climax of the festival was at midnight when men carrying flaming straw bundles ran into a small river. The downtown streets were crowded with onlookers.

I came back at about 11:00 with a few friends, two other Americans and two Japanese, so I didn’t have to rely on my students for socialization.

But it was really impossible to get away from the students. As we walked down the road everyone was yelling out hello to me, and I was constantly turning my head to wave at this or that student. “You’re really a celebrity here,” my friends commented to me.

I passed a group of my former 9th grade students, now just entering high school, walking down the street and drinking beer. I wasn’t surprised that under-age drinking was taking place, but it did surprise me that they were being so blatant about it. The beer was right in their hands and there was absolutely no attempt made to conceal what they were doing. I don’t think that would have happened in Ajimu.

But there have been a number of things that I’ve observed in this new town that makes me think it is not quite as conservative as the countryside of Ajimu. There also were a lot of loud drunken arguments taking place in the street, and I don’t remember any of that at the festivals in Ajimu.

We stopped at a bridge overlooking the water, and I ran into two more of my former 9th grade students. They were both happy to see me, but one of them was visibly intoxicated. “It’s good to see you,” she blurted out. “We haven’t seen you since graduation.”

While she was saying this she was barely able to stand, and frequently supported by her friend, so I said what was obvious. “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”

She went through the motions of denying, and then gave a laugh, which seemed to admit it. “Come on,” she said, motioning me to follow. “I’ll show you where we’re all drinking.”

Her friend was horrified. “Don’t do that,” the friend said. “He’s a teacher.” But the other one kept motioning for me to follow, and so in the end I just shrugged my shoulders and followed. At the end of the bridge there was a group of former 9th grade students, most of whom I hadn’t seen since they graduated. They were happy to see me and very friendly. Actually a little too friendly, if you know what I mean, greeting me with overly friendly backslaps and red eyes. “So you’ve been drinking?” I said. It was obvious at this point, but it was a good conversation starter.

One of the boys listed off everything he had to drink that night. Then he stopped and they all waited for my response. “But you’re only 15,” I said.

“That’s right,” another one said, “so you can’t tell anyone.”

There were two options: one was to laugh it off, and the other was to get angry and try and scold them. But I wasn’t really a proper teacher, so I didn’t feel like it was my job to scold them. Instead, right after they had implored me to keep their drinking a secret, I grabbed one of them and yelled out, “Hey everyone, this kid is only 15 years old and he’s been drinking.”

The general noise of the crowd drowned out my yells. And even if someone had heard, I doubt they would have cared. Underage drinking is one of the less enforced laws in Japan. Nevertheless the students, who sensed they had more to lose than I did if this joke went sour, rushed forward to try and get me to be quiet. They were laughing at the same time though, and the tension was broken.

My friends came over and I introduced them to the students. They marveled at the exoticness of meeting more Americans, and in their wonder even initially mistook the Japanese girls with us as foreigners as well. Everyone got a good laugh over this. We talked for a while and then, as friendly as the students were, I decided it was time to retreat with my friends. There’s only so long I can talk to students without it becoming awkward.

While talking with my friends, I observed two men, well into middle-age, stumble upon my students. One of the middle aged men was quite drunk himself, and regarded the young girls with a drunkards delight, and immediately began chatting with them in a drunken way that barely concealed his leering.

This in itself I regarded as disgusting, but this was after all Japan. Because of the Japanese Lolita complex flirting with young girls seems to be more acceptable than it is in the West. And because Japan is a drinking culture, not only is public drunkenness acceptable, but anything done well drunk is usually laughed off and forgiven the next day. So if the incident had stopped there, I would have simply shrugged it off as Japan.

But the drunk, having I suppose a drunkards sense of time, stayed and talked and talked to the girls. His more sober friend, who really should have pulled him away, was instead more focused on yelling and threatening every student who bumped into him. In fact the friend, although middle aged, handled himself with such authority and aggressiveness that I thought he must be a business leader or a gang boss. Either that or, perhaps more likely, he was someone who had been shit upon all his life, and so enjoyed acting like Napoleon around 15 year old kids.

I was more and more distracted from talking to my friends as I tried to keep my eye on what was happening with the students. At first the girls seemed to be enjoying the attention, and I thought as long as they are handling him well, there didn’t seem to be a need to intervene. After a while, they seemed more and more disturbed by him, as he refused to leave, and was trying to get them on a time that they would meet him the next day. At this point it seemed like someone should do something.

I had written previously that sometimes in crisis we find that we are not the people we fantasize about being. I was again reminded of that thought now. During boring school assemblies I had sometimes zoned out and imagined the school being taken over by terrorist, at which point I would heroically save everyone. Now I was seized by a feeling of impotence as I wasn’t sure how to save my students against one drunk.

I thought of a million reasons why I shouldn’t do anything. The girls should be able to handle him themselves, and if they weren’t, the boys in their group should be able to help them out. As a foreigner I would only make the situation more awkward. If the native Japanese weren’t intervening, why should I? Besides, what did I know about Japanese customs? I was thinking of course as an American. I was thinking that public drunkenness by a grown man was disgraceful, and that a middle age man, drunk or sober, should in no circumstances shamelessly hit on girls just barely out of junior high school. But in Japan it probably happened all the time.

At any rate, what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t go over and hit the man just for talking to the girls. Even if I went over and said something like, “Okay, you’ve been talking to these girls long enough,” it would seem like I was overly protective of the students, and they themselves might not even appreciate it.

If only some sort of physical conflict would happen, then I would have an excuse for intervening on the students’ side. And actually, it seemed like this might be a possibility. Some of the boys in the group were becoming irritated at the drunk who wouldn’t leave their girls alone, and I could almost imagine them starting a confrontation. And then I could easily imagine the overly aggressive friend of the drunk grabbing and striking one of the students. And then I would have my excuse.

While I was debating these issues with myself, the girls made some excuse to leave and abruptly filed out. It took the drunk a while to realize what was going on, and then he said to his friend, “Where have all the girls gone? Come on, let’s go after them.”

He and his friend made an attempt to find the girls, but to my delight a crowd of fire marchers came through at that point, and the drunk was forced to stop to let them go through. By the time he was able to go forward again, the girls were long gone. He and his friend made an attempt to follow anyway, and once they had left the girls came back to their old spot.

As the evening went on, the students starting letting off fireworks near the river. They were loud fireworks and the area was crowded, so I think they hurt everyone’s ears. “Damn kids,” I muttered to my friends.

“They’re your students,” a friend said. “It’s your job to keep them in line.”

This was an obvious joke because I had absolutely no authority with these kids whatsoever. I jokingly pretended to address the students. “Okay, that’s it. If that happens one more time, I’m going to end this whole fire festival. I mean it, I’ll cancel the whole thing.”

I noticed that instead of paying attention to me the students were instead busy shielding their ears. I should have taken this as a warning, but I was too late to cover my ears as the loud sound of fireworks went off again.

A while later another drunken argument broke out again close by. A young man, a few years younger than me I think, probably a university student, was arguing with an older middle-aged man. Since they were yelling in fast Japanese, I didn’t catch all of what they were saying. The old man appeared to want to step forward and start a fight, but his wife was standing in front of him. Then the old man yelled out something, but his wife covered his mouth. The man tried to speak anyway, and turned his head from side to side trying to escape his wife’s hand.

The young man yelled out something about how all older people were worthless. He walked down the street a little way, then abruptly turned around to come back and yell out some last words. “You only think of yourselves. There are children here. Think about that!” Both the old man and the younger man were obviously intoxicated.

Despite the fact that we had witnessed several drunken arguments that night, this exchange seemed to particularly disturb the Japanese friends we were with. “That was really awful,” one Japanese friend said. “The younger man should never have talked to an old man like that.”

“What was the fight about,” I asked.

“The young man was saying all old people are not good for anything,” the Japanese friend said.

“Oh, I’d go along with that,” I said. Nobody laughed at this joke.

“The young man was upset that the older people weren’t stopping the children from setting off the fireworks,” my Japanese friend continued. “He said that it was the old people’s responsibility to supervise the children, and that they weren’t doing their job. He was right of course, but he should never have said it. It was very disrespectful of him.”

Shortly afterward the drunk and his friend found their way back to the 15-year-old girls. “There you are,” he said. “Where did you go? Don’t forget we’re meeting tomorrow at 4, right?”

The girls seemed unsure of how to respond to that. At this point one of the boys spoke up. “I don’t think they’ll be able to come,” he said. “But we” he referenced the other boys who were standing with him, “can meet you at 4 tomorrow if you want.”

It was a clever ploy, because if the drunk refused the invitation then he dropped all pretenses of just being a friendly older man, and was obviously interested in picking up younger girls. The drunk took the bait. “I don’t want to see you. I want to see the girls.”

“They don’t want to see you old man.” The boy took a drag of his cigarette, and blew the smoke out in the drunks face. This seemed at last like the conflict I had been waiting for. I edged my way towards the scene.

Because I was approaching from the back, the drunk and his friend couldn’t see me, but the students could, and they seemed to regard my presence with more nervousness than anything else. Perhaps they expected me to scold them for being disrespectful, or maybe just the presence of a teacher from school caused them to loose their boldness somewhat. The boy lowered his cigarette and was looking at me nervously out of the corner of his eyes.

“You shouldn’t be smoking,” the friend said angrily. Of course he shouldn’t have been, but since there was plenty of underage smoking and drinking going on, making an issue of it now seemed like just an excuse for a fight.

In true Japanese fashion, the boy bowed his head and apologized, but kept the cigarette in his hand. “Well drop the cigarette then,” the friend demanded. “Don’t apologize and keep the cigarette.” The friend then whacked at the cigarette with his cane. He didn’t succeed in putting it out, but he did send sparks from the lit end over the boys clothing.

The boy quickly patted himself to make sure all the sparks were out. “Hey, that’s dangerous,” the other students protested. The friend then hit the student’s hand with his cane, and when the boy yelled back at him, the friend raised his cane to strike harder. At this point I reached out and grabbed the friend’s wrist. “That’s dangerous,” I said, echoing what the students had been saying.

The man turned on me sharply, but the moment he saw me he just broke into a huge smile. “A foreigner!” he called out happily. “Where are you from?”

I guess this is another thing that happens only in Japan. Instantly he and the drunk seemed to have forgotten all about the students, and I was suddenly bombarded with questions about if I liked Japanese food, or could I use chopsticks. And instantly I was transformed into the stupid, grinning, eager to please foreigner. The drunk only turned back to the girls long enough to ask who I was. “That’s Joel,” the girls answered.

“Georji” the drunk called out delighted. The girls tried in vain to correct him, but he only seemed to be able to hear Georji. The girls said I had been their teacher at junior high school, and so the drunk and his friend seemed to regard me with a new level of respect. “We’re also elders in the community,” said the friend, “so if you’re a teacher here, it means we are like mentors to you.”

The students, who I think for a split second had regarded me as a hero, were now looking at me with disgust as they saw how well I was getting on with their antagonists. But there didn’t seem to be a point in making a conflict where none existed. Eventually the students quietly left. And then the friend left as well. And now I was left alone with the drunk, and it was I who needed someone to save me from this conversation.

“How old are you,” the drunk asked.

“27,” I answered for the 3rd time.

“I’m 57. That means I’m exactly 30 years older than you,” the drunk said for the 3rd time. I began to look to my friends for help. When the drunk was distracted, my friends invited me to come into the middle of their circle. The drunk left shortly after that.

I met the former 9th graders once more briefly before the night was over. At this point they were somewhat less energetic than they had been earlier. Some of them were throwing up in the corner. “I think some of us had too much to drink,” one admitted to me.
“That can happen sometimes,” I answered.

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