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The 5 Biggest Misconceptions about Japan

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my book, Shakotan Blue, I wanted to share an interesting tidbit of what I learned during my time in Japan. Even for a Japan Studies major like myself, there were many misconceptions about Japan that persisted in my thinking until I actually came to live in the country. So let’s recap the five biggest notions about Japan that I have learned just aren’t true.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

1. Japan Is Not So High-Tech

After rising to economic dominance with companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba, Japan has certainly become synonymous with cutting-edge technology. One of my college history professors even said, “If you want to see the future, go to East Asia.” The idea being that technology was advancing so rapidly in Japan, China, and South Korea that visiting those countries was like traveling forward in time. Well, I’m been to the future, and you know what? Outside of Akihabara in Tokyo, Japan isn’t all that futuristic.

Don’t get me wrong: Japan has the most technologically advanced toilet seats in the world, for sure. The rail systems are top-notch. And modern Japanese home appliances are always compact and energy efficient. But that doesn’t mean Japan feels like technological dreamland. A well-engineered rice cooker is nice, but it’s not exactly on par with the robots I had been promised.

In some areas of life, Japan almost seems resistant to adopting conveniences that we take for granted in the US. Bill paying in Japan for instance, is not particularly advanced. You can pay your electric bill or purchase concert tickets at your local convenience store. You know why? Because Japan is primarily a cash-only society and you can’t always use your debit card make those transactions online. While it appears convenient to pay for these things at the 7-Eleven, it’s really not when you consider that Internet makes the entire system irrelevant. Existing communication technology is largely not utilized.

And even though Japan is largely cash-only, ATMs are only open for specific hours of the day. Why?! Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea? Technologically advanced or not, Japan is transactionally challenged.

But that’s not all. Every household I visited in Japan had a fax machine. All businesses still insist on maintaining paper records for absolutely everything. Flip-phones with outdated features have dominated Japan’s cellular market since the days of antiquity, and Apple’s iPhone has only begun to make a dent in recent years.

The thing is, it’s not technology that defines modern Japan, but tradition.

As Japan’s population ages, the country appears more and more resistant to new consumer technology. Like a cranky grandfather who can’t be bothered to learn how to use his email, there might be a large swath of the population who prefers the old and familiar to the new and innovative.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

2. Japan Is Not So Weird

Not by a long shot

In the west, Japan has the reputation of being outlandish, kooky place; loud, colorful, and frenetic, like a teenybopper’s fever dream. Through wildly creative animation and video games, the island nation has solidified its place in the global zeitgeist as a Nerd Mecca. But beyond the bubblegum pop, the dissemination of crazy prank videos from Japanese TV and truly bizarre urban myths have added a mildly disturbing underside to the country’s kooky image.

This may come as a surprise, but Japan is not nearly as incomprehensible as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, overall Japan is a rather conservative place. Remember that thing I said about tradition in the last section?

Out of context, the aberrant gets misconstrued as the norm. Videos of weird pranks and gross-out humor posted online as examples of bizarre Japanese traditions are almost always gags from comedy programs. It’s like if someone in Japan used Saturday Night Live skits as an example of how bizarre American political values are. It’s not representative of the country; it’s literally a joke. If you see an outrageous video from Japan and it strikes you as truly deviant, you can be fairly certain that the vast majority of Japanese people will have the exact same reaction.

It doesn’t make for good headlines, but the fact of the matter is that life in Japan is fairly ordinary. There certainly are differences between Japan and the US—especially the esoteric cultural nuances you would have never known of, had you not read my book—but if you come to Japan expecting the perplexing and ridiculous highlights you’ve seen online, you might be disappointed by how normal everything is.

Image courtesy of Pokemon.Wikia.com

3. Silly Otaku, Anime is for Kids!

Speaking of Japan as a Nerd Mecca, I have some bad news for anyone whose interest in Japanese culture is based entirely on an appreciation of anime. Sorry dudes, but even in Japan, cartoons are primary made for kids. Animated cinema carries about the same level of mainstream respectability in Japan as it does in the US.

Manga reading is far more prevalent in Japan, as comic books are produced in just about every genre you can think of. But that doesn’t mean the entire country is really into comic book superheroes. It means that there is an infinite amount of manga in genres that you would find completely boring. If a popular manga can be made into a live-action movie or TV series, the producers will likely go that route. Generally it’s only when the audience is considered to be teens or younger that the concept gets animated.

Just look at the Pokémon cartoon series. See how childish and silly it is? The audience they’re aiming for is very young, and that’s the audience the majority anime series aim for. And sure, there are some exceptions, but they are few. In general, a “mature” anime audience means teenagers.

Japan is not exactly a nerd utopia. The country does not embrace nerd culture any more than the US does. On the contrary, Japan is almost certainly a less hospitable place for niche subcultures. While some anime enthusiasts in the US call themselves “otaku” as badge of honor, the word remains an insult reserved for outcasts in Japan. You really don’t want to be labeled as an otaku.

Sakamoto Ryoma. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

4. Japan’s Citizens Are More Individualistic Than You Think

More so than most other nations, Japan is viewed from the outside—and often from within—as a very homogeneous country. Japanese society certainly encourages blending in with the crowd, values modesty over audacity, and emphasizes loyalty to the group above one’s personal desires. The image of the Japanese people as a united front is pervasive.

The unfortunate result of this constructed image is that many people outside Japan tend to assume that the outward conformity is representative of an internal conformity shared by all Japanese people. Those who generalize tend to assume that Japanese people are less individualistic than people in the west. And that’s simply not true.

The Japanese friends I’ve made throughout my journey not only hold a great diversity of opinions, political attitudes, and tastes, but they are at least as individualistic as their western counterparts—maybe more so! It’s just not as immediately apparent because they generally aren’t very vocal about it.

Plenty people in Japan won’t be too quick to share their honest opinions with you. Again, modesty is highly valued. But just because someone doesn’t share their opinions easily doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

The people who felt comfortable discussing politics with me revealed an incredible diversity of opinion. While I expected most folks to lean conservative, the views they shared fell all over on the political spectrum, and many surprised me with their nuanced stances across multiple divisive issues. Far from subscribing to one preconceived agenda, all my Japanese friends proved to be more individualistic that I would have assumed.

Classic Chris Farley SNL skit. Image from Imgur.

5. Learning to Speak Japanese Isn’t Really That Hard

(It’s reading and writing that’s impossible)

Japanese is a cool language, the one that I had always wanted to learn. But learning it outside of Japan can be very challenging. It’s so completely different than English and not widely spoken in the US, meaning that my opportunities to practice were few and far between. And that’s what you need to learn a language like Japanese, practice. Tons and tons of practice.

I studied Japanese in college and, despite my great enthusiasm, I came out of school unable to hold a real conversation. I memorized loads of vocabulary, grammatical structures, and at least a couple hundred kanji, but my brain was never able to access this information quickly enough for me to utilize it. All my study proved futile, useless.

But why?

When you switch from speaking English to Japanese, your brain has to “change gears”, so to speak. The part of the brain that handles language is like a muscle; you have to exercise it to keep it fit. You have to use it or lose it. When we study in school, the part of the brain that commits all the vocabulary and grammar to memory doesn’t necessarily connect that information to actionable language part. Study all you want, but without putting things into practice—as in actually speaking the language—you won’t build the language skills you need.

So how does one really learn Japanese?

You have to engage in actual conversations. You have to listen and you have to speak. Talk with as many different people as possible, different ages, different jobs, ideally people from different regions. You have to force your brain to shift into Japanese-mode and build an understanding of the language that can be rapidly accessed without even thinking about it. That’s the only way to practice.

The catch is, to learn as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you need to go to Japan. You need to immerse yourself in the culture, to surround yourself with Japanese words, spoken and written. You need to make English the language that must be sought, and Japanese the default speech of day-to-day life. You need to go to Japan.

Whatever your current skill level, however much you know: start there. Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. Practice speaking is the only way to learn to speak. Go to Japan and speak the language everyday.

And please note, while I said that learning to speak Japanese isn’t really that hard, I didn’t say that learning to read and write Japanese is so easy. Thanks to the seemingly infinite number of kanji used in Japanese text, reading and writing competency is a far, far more daunting goal than speaking.

Learning new kanji is just plain difficult. Still, the more conversational experience you acquire, the more vocabulary you will learn. The larger your vocabulary, the easier it will be to learn new kanji, and vice versa. So even if you want to master reading and writing, you still need to go to Japan.

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Shakotan Blue available for Pre-Order

Shakotan Blue logo

Shakotan Blue is almost here! If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you’re going to love the book. Pre-order your copy early and get a discount of 15% off the regular price.

Order Shakotan Blue Here

The first run will ship November, 2015. Last day of pre-orders: August 31st.

Check out ShakotanBlue.com for more details. And thanks for reading!

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Goroawase: Japanese Number Puns

goroawase

On November 8th 2011, the junior high school conducted a special “Dental Heath Day”. This seemed to me like a rather arbitrary time to emphasize dental health, as important as it is. But Vice Principle Tanaka explained to me that the day hadn’t been selected completely at random. This particular date was chosen using goroawase (語呂合わせ).

Goroawase (語呂合わせ) is a form of Japanese word play in which the pronunciations of numbers are used to make homophonic words of various convenient meanings. It is essentially a vast world of number puns, and it’s very commonly used. The most prevalent use of goroawase is as a mnemonic device for handy memorization of phone numbers. Pretty much all advertisements that include a phone number utilize this type of pun-ishment.

What makes goroawase convenient is its flexibility, and this comes from the multiple pronunciations for numbers found in Japanese. Japanese contains two ways of pronouncing any particular kanji, called kun’yomi (訓読み – native Japanese reading) and on’yomi (音読み – reading borrowed from Chinese). This is the reason why learning kanji is so frustratingly difficult, but it also makes the creation of puns easier. In addition to the dual pronunciation thing, the Japanese language has also added tons of words from English in recent history, so Engurish terms can be used as well. (I say “Engurish terms” because while these are the numbers you’re familiar with, they’re usually spoken in a Japanese accent, which changes the pronunciation a bit.)

To make it easy, I’ve prepared a reading chart for you, complete with both kana and romanji:

No. Kun’yomi Reading On’yomi Reading From English
0 maru, ma →まる, rei, re →れい, o, zero, ze→,ゼロ,
1 hitotsu, hito, hi →ひとつ,ひと, ichi, i →いち, wan→ワン
2 futatsu, fu, futa  →ふたつ,ふ,ふた ni → tsū, tū→ツー,トゥー
3 mitsu, mi →みつ, san, sa →さん, surī→スリー
4 yon, yo, yotsu →よん,よ,よつ shi → fō→フォー
5 itsutsu, itsu →いすつ,いつ go, ko →, faibu, faivu→ファイブ
6 mutsu, mu →むつ, roku, ro →ろく, shikkusu→シックス
7 nana, nanatsu, na →なな,なつ, shichi →しち sebun, sevun→セブン
8 yatsu, ya →やつ, hachi, ha, ba →はち,, eito→エイト
9 kokonotsu, ko →ここのつ, kyu, ku →きゅう,

nain→ナイン

10 tō →とお ju, ji →じゅう, ten→テン

 

The most noticeable use of goroawase has to be “3-9”. When said as “three nine”, as opposed to “thirty-nine”, these numbers are pronounced “san kyu”. To the ear of a Japanese speaker, this sounds exactly like “thank you”.

So back to the November Dental Health Day, it breaks down like this:

November 8th → 11/8 → 1, 1, 8 → い, い, は→ いい歯→ “good teeth”, hence Dental Health Day

And there’s also this one:

June 4th → 6-4 → むし→ 虫→ “bug” or (in the context of teeth) “cavity”, another Dental Health Day

One for use at the grocery store:

The 29th of the month → 2, 9 → にく→ 肉→ “Meat Day”, meat is cheaper at the store

And another school day of note:

July 10th → 7, 10 → な とお→ 納豆→ “Natto Day”, or in my opinion, “Disappointing Lunch Day”

This place is called “Hanaten”. (Ha – 8, na – 7, ten…well, you know.)

It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with goroawase, as it’s everywhere in Japan. Then the next time an advertisement cleverly uses this convention in their phone number, you can finally be in on the joke.

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Street Fighter Rant: Character Missteps

This entry is going to be an oddity for my blog, as it has very little to do with my experiences in Japan. In fact, I’m about to rant about video games. So here’s fair warning, you can stop reading now and avoid wasting your time on this one.
Still here? Fine. Just remember that I warned you…

I love Street Fighter. For about 20 years now, the fighting game series has been a consistent source escapist fantasy, martial arts inspiration, and artistically stylized, expertly crafted interactive entrainment. It’s been the primary source of quality time with my elder brother, and a common interest that’s led to making new friends. I love not just the challenging, fast paced gameplay, but the overarching mythos of Street Fighter; the cannon that connects story of each game—usually quite minimal as it is—with the continuity of the others. I love the art of Street Fighter—referring to both the amazing visual works of Capcom’s artists, as well as the less generally recognized artistic brilliance of good game design.

And perhaps above all other elements, I love Street Fighter’s characters. Beginning with Street Fighter II, Capcom revolutionized game design by introducing a timeless cast of unique characters, each fleshed out with their own story, culture, fighting style, and personality. An impressive collection of legendary martial arts archetypes, along with the occasional oddball, each character looked distinct and played drastically differently. (Well, expect for mainstays Ryu and Ken, but the developers widened that gap as the series progressed.) This cast gave players a more meaningful choice rat off the bat, in simply which character to select, than many games would provide over the course of the entire experience. As countless one-on-one fighting games popped up to compete with Street Fighter at the arcades, it was truly the game’s iconic cast that enabled it to hold onto its primacy in gaming culture. Well, the cast and the gameplay mechanics, which Street Fighter pioneered and continued to fine-tune through many iterations.

Street Fighter reached its pinnacle in 1999 with Street Fighter III: Third Strike. This was the greatest fighting game ever made, and I’m fairly certain that it will never be topped as the King of Fighters. (See what I did there?) It had a fantastic, colorful cast of well-balanced fighters, gorgeous flowing 2D animation, and flawless gameplay mechanics. (The parry system, while potentially daunting to newcomers, was absolutely perfect.) But after this game, Street Fighter was fairly quiet for 10 years. Then in 2009, came the revival everybody was hoping for, Street Fighter IV. While the aesthetic style of SFIV was pretty cool, in my opinion, the game was no SFIII, and that’s what I’m going to complain about it here. There are specific complaints I have about SFIV’s gameplay—really, I could bore you with those all day—but it’s the game’s character designs that I’d like to harp on here. (I warned you.)

Simply put, the new characters in Street Fighter IV suck. Pretty much all of them. Abel, the French mixed martial artist, is really the only acceptable newcomer. He has a legitimately cool design befitting of SF, and he successfully capitalizes on the explosive popularity of MMA. I still must complain though, that from a martial arts appreciation standpoint, his special “Tornado Throw” is remarkably lame.

C. Viper’s fighting prowess comes from her super-tight cybernetic spy suit, and that’s just plain stupid. Fighters whose strength comes from magic or sci-fi technology are starkly out of place in a martial arts contest. It’s a crutch of bad character design and almost always comes off as ludicrous and moronic. (This is precisely why I think Rose is so lame.)

El Fuerte, the ultra fast sprinting lucador, almost works. But Capcom blatantly attempted to make him a super silly character, which ruins everything.  You see, El Fuerte is a chef searching the world for delicious recipes. And he’s also a lucador. This gag, while not very funny, is driven into the ground more often than his opponents.

And then there’s Rufus, the rotund, jingling, ponytail-sporting, fat ass, who—despite what we know of physics—is capable of lighting-speed, back flipping kung fu.  Now, I could have overlooked the unbelievable aspects of this character if he was A) actually funny on occasion, or B) fun to play, with some cool-looking moves. Neither of these are true. Rufus is probably the dumbest character Capcom has ever come up with, one that’s insulting not just to the fat American wannabes that he’s parodying (he is a parody of something, right?), but to every diehard fan that had been waiting a decade for this game.

So of the four truly new characters, two are jokes and one’s sci-fi reliant design is completely forgettable. That brings us to Seth, the new end boss. Seth manages to take some of the infuriating cheapness of SFIII’s end boss, Gill, and fuse it with recognizable classic SF techniques stolen from various characters, to form an unoriginal and ultimately uninteresting package. Seth is literally a naked gray lump of lazy character design.

Now I know what you’re thinking, Didn’t Street Fighter II have weirdo characters like Blanka and Dhalsim? Why are you giving them a free pass? And that’s a valid argument. But I think the difference there is that both Blanka and Dhalsim have back stories that go beyond a bad joke. And each one could potentially be taken seriously as an intimidating fighter. In Blanka’s case, the wild man from the jungle would certainly be someone that you wouldn’t want to tangle with. Sure, the green skin is a bit much, but as the original “freak” fighting game character, I think it’s passable. And while Dhalsim surely originated from the Japanese designers’ racist xenophobic ideas of people of the Indian subcontinent—complete with flaming curry breath—the stretching limb idea proved to be an excellent gameplay dynamic. (Plus, it’s still arguably more realist than throwing fireballs.) In the Street Fighter mythos, Dhalsim has become one of the most interesting characters as well. An enlightened spiritual leader and pacifist, Dhalsim only fights for a specific cause, usually to improve the lives of the poor in his homeland. Blanka and Dhalsim can be taken as facetious characters if you want, but they can also be taken seriously too. No one can take Rufus seriously. Ever.

It’s not that I don’t have any love for the weird characters. I like playing as Necro, the electric, stretchy freak job in SFIII. I also like playing as wrinkly Oro, the Brazilian hermit, and oldest—yet strongest—man alive. I think Oro has a special place in the story, essentially as a representation of what Ryu will eventually become if continues to wander the world training for the remainder of his life. Usual, oddball, or downright weird characters are fine on occasion, it just helps if they work within the context of the game. And you can’t overdo it. For example, some people like to call out French goth Remy as a weak character. But I think a skinny emo kid is perfectly fine within the mostly young cast of SFIII. His goth fashion androgynous aesthetic fits right in. And his sonic booms and flashkick nostalgically clue us in to the fact that he’s probably a competent fighter.

I can dig it.

Back to SFIV, one character that I really wanted to like, but couldn’t, was Gouken; Ryu and Ken’s murdered-but-now-inexplicably-resurrected master, and the brother of fan favorite, Gouki (Akuma). Gouken would have been a perfectly fine—yet completely unnecessary—inclusion if they had gotten his moveset right. But for no reason whatsoever, his dragon punch dashes forward, not up. His hurricane kick flies straight up, instead of forward. And the player is expected to key in these techniques with the old motions, which are no longer intuitive. Why not change the arbitrary motion inputs to make his moves flow more naturally? And while we’re at it, why not use the good old backward quarter-circle motions for his counters like Karin used in Street Fighter Zero (Alpha) 3? That would have been a lot better too. And speaking of Gouken’s dragon punch, did any of you play Street Fighter EX back in the day? (Yeah, nobody else did either. Just me.) Fun fact: one of the characters in SFEX, Allen Snider, had pretty much the exact same dragon punch move as Gouken, only his was called the “Justice Fist.”

When Capcom inevitably released the next iteration of SFIV (Super SFIV) just one year later, they upped the ante with a couple more disappointing characters. Juri, the South Korean Tae Kwon Do girl, had a ton of potential. (I had predicted that Capcom would include a female TKD fighter, so this was a win for me.  Generally, I love TKD characters.) But, Capcom decided to give Juri a weird cybernetic eyeball and make her into a psychotic, overly-sexualized, sadistic villain. This struck me as an odd choice for a smaller female character that doesn’t look physically imposing. The game’s opening cinematic introduced us to Juri by showing her successfully take on both Chun Li and Cammy simultaneously, just to show off how incredibly strong she was supposed to be. Now, no offense Capcam, but you’ve already established Chun Li as the strongest woman in the world, so that doesn’t really hold water. Overall, Juri’s design isn’t too bad, but her story and personality are just abysmal.

You have got to be kidding me…

Super SFIV’s other new fighter, Hakan the Turkish oil wrestler, really highlights how far Capcom has fallen in terms of character design. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? Again, it looks like Capcom thought that players were holding out hope for yet another lighthearted, goofy character; yet another joke to keep them laughing all the way. But this facetious attitude just makes me wish they would take their jobs more seriously. If anybody should be insulted by a fighting game character these days, it’s Turkish oil wrestlers, and it’s Hakan that they should be pissed about. Instead of paying homage to a traditional fighting system—like character designers do when they get it right—Capcom pokes fun at this one outright. And they don’t help anything with Hakan’s personality either. They have him yell stuff like “Time to oil up!” at every opportunity.

Darum: This would have been preferable.

Perhaps Capcom was trying to do something really original with Hakan’s gameplay mechanics. Maybe they wanted to create a really unique experience by literally slopping oil everywhere. But I honestly don’t find Hakan that interesting or compelling to play. And what makes things worse is that I had high hopes for him. To reference Street Fighter EX again, that game had a badass Indian wrestler by the name of Darum Mister. After Hakan had been announced, but before he was debuted to the public, I thought he might be a legitimately cool character in the same vein as Darum. In fact, the two do share several aesthetic similarities. But while Darum was an incredibly cool character, Hakan—by design—is a complete joke.

No. This is not martial arts.

Sure, Street Fighter has had its fair share of bad characters over the years—the SF Zero (Alpha) series included several unnecessary/loser characters by Zero 3. (R. Mika? Seriously, Capcom.) Even SFIII: Third Strike had freaking Twelve, an alien-looking T-1000 shape-shifting creature. Also Q was distinctly out of place, but at least the steel-faced apparent robot in a trench coat was shrouded in as much mystery as possible. (Sometimes the key to good character design is in the details you withhold.) Still, there’s something about level of character design awfulness vs. excellence in SFIV that is unsettling.

After SFIV, when Capcom partnered with Namco Bandai to bring us Street Fighter X Tekken, we got to see Capcom’s eccentricities highlighted further by their truly bizarre choices of which fighters to include from both franchises. [There was also that little scandal involving Capcom’s scam to include DLC (downloadable content), including 12 new fighters, hidden on the game disk and just charge their customers for them later. You know, as if they were actually purchasing additional, downloadable content. But that game’s a rant for a different day.] Finally players got the match up they were longing for, Rufus vs. Bob. Two fat-yet-speedy blonde guys, duking it out for the title of gaming greatest self-deprecating joke.

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Elementary School Chaos

The elementary kids are generally more rowdy than the junior high students. Although to be fair, the second year junior high kids tend to mix up it more than their first or third year counterparts. Still, the elementary kids maintain a constant buzz of playful excitement that the older students can’t match. Generally the fifth and sixth graders are quite open to English instruction, and while they can be wilder, the classes are very rewarding for a teacher like me.

Near the end of the school year the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seo, got quite sick, and ended up missing about a month of classes. During this time, the Principal and Vice Principal had to step in and teach the fifth grade as substitutes. This meant that when I came in to teach English on Tuesday, it all me, a one-man show. This wasn’t a problem at first, but without their regular teacher there to provide stability and discipline, the students began to unravel.

By the third week of Mrs. Seo’s absence, the classroom’s demeanor had changed. Even though the Vice Principal was right there in the room with us, a few of the boys started acting up. They’d randomly get out their seats and walk around the classroom, sometimes leaving the room completely. One of the louder troublemakers would try purposely shouting Japanese obscenities that had the slightly phonetic resemblance to the English vocabulary. (For example, instead of saying “Monday” one student yelled “manko”, a vulgar term for vagina.) One of the quieter troublemakers opted to ignore the whole lesson, simply cutting papers into little pieces with scissors and scattering the pieces all over the floor. The Vice Principal did his best to corral the hooligans, but the students had apparently learned to ignore the sense of groupism and shame that normally guides personal behavior in Japanese society. Besides asking the kids not to act up, there was little the VP could do.

Feeling that the class was losing interest in my lesson, I jumped right into the day’s game. The kids really only enjoy the game bits anyway, so why not, right? The vocabulary we were learning was the names of school subjects (like math, science, social studies, English, etc.), and I had prepared cards for each subject. The game we played was essentially just janken (じゃん拳 – Rock-paper-scissors), with an additional card collection element. Two students have a quick match of janken, and the losing student then asks the winner, “What subject do you like?” in English. The winner responds, “I like music”, for example, and if the losing student has a “Music” card, they have to give it to the winner. Once a student collects five cards of the same kind, they win the game.

I thought the game had a good blend of strategy and random chance, while providing a good platform for using the key phrases in context. Plus, my cards were pure gold – laminated gold – if I do say so myself. But to jump into the game portion of class when your kids aren’t behaving can be a risky move. If you succeed in engaging their interest than you can get them positively involved, sure. But kids (and adults too) can become so fixated on winning a meaningless game that they lose all sense of decorum. And when self-control is already in question, the game can make things worse. Things got off to great start and my gamble seemed to be paying off, but when a girl and boy started physically fighting over the school subject cards, everything fell apart.

The VP separated the children, who had ended up wrestling on the floor. The girl (let’s called her Kinno) laughed it off, while the boy (let’s called him Aki) seemed particularly crazed. (These aren’t their real names, by the way.) Perhaps Kinno had gotten in more hits than Aki had.

The VP physically held Aki back as he tried to push his way through to the girl and continue their fisticuffs. His eyes were intense and teary, and they shot daggers at his target. At some point, the VP left the Aki’s side for just a moment and he promptly decimated Kinno’s desk, throwing her books and papers on the floor, and pitching her pencil case across the room. Upon hitting the wall, the pencil case exploded its contents all over; writing utensils, rulers, erasers, and the like, spilt forth like candy from a piñata. The VP quickly took hold of the boy again, but the class went into total bedlam, as all the girls scurried about, helping pick up Kinno’s belongings. Amidst this chaos, one of the quiet young ruffians took the opportunity to stealthily grab a chalkboard eraser and hurl it across the room as well. Its wall impact was accompanied by a plume of chalky white powder, dissipating into the air like smoke after a bomb blast. Preoccupied with frenzied desk vandal, the VP didn’t even notice this.

It took quite awhile for the melee to calm down, and the all of the girls ignored the VP’s commands to sit down as they were desperate to find a missing lip balm cap. Unsure of how I could help the situation – not to mention what I was and wasn’t allowed to do – I simply stood at the front of the class, silent, arms crossed, and probably with a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression on my face. I think we almost regained control of the class by the time the bell rang, but not quite. The VP was extremely apologetic to me but I waved off the concern. It was really him who had it rough, and I felt I should have been the one apologizing.

The next week, Tuesday March 6th, Mrs. Seo was still absent. Again it would just be me teaching, with the Vice Principal there to help. While the previous week had gotten a bit nuts, I was confident that as long as the kids weren’t fighting each other, the class should go pretty smoothly. These hopes were dashed promptly, before I even got to the classroom. From down the hallway, about 50 meters from the room, the VP and I spotted the fifth grade boys playing outside of the classroom. One kid had a watering can and instead of garden plants, he was sprinkling the linoleum floor. Another kid was wielding a mop, and I wasn’t sure about it, but he may have been trying to clear up the mess. Last week’s most crazy student, Aki, took off his t-shirt, crouched down, and let the first kid shower his back with water. It was sure to be one of those days.

Inside the classroom, the at least three of the boys had damp clothes or were soaking wet. When I asked them how they were, a few responded, “I’m cold” in Japanese, not even trying to speak English with me. I said to Aki, “That’s probably because you’re not wearing a shirt and you’re all wet.” (If he wasn’t going to work with me, I wasn’t about to speak his language.) Initially, the students – the girls and boys both – refused to begin class with a simple “Hello Mr. Lucas”.

Even after he had his shirt back on, Aki was clearly determined to be as disruptive as possible. He didn’t even have the decency to try and make much vulgar word-based humor by mispronouncing the vocabulary, although he occasionally would still shout some. Instead, he repeated yelled in my direction, asking me who I was in overly casual Japanese. While this stuck as a tad disrespectful and unnecessary, his repeated use of the word temee (てめえ – a coarse, vulgar word for “you”) to refer to the Vice Principal was far worse.

To my surprise, Aki and Kinno were no longer fighting. In fact, the pair must have made up because Kinno was now supporting everything that Aki did. All of Aki’s angst was now directed at faculty and the two of them were both having a grand old time. In the class’s state of disorganization, it was like a Japanese Lord of the Flies (“Rold of the Fries”, if you will), and it was clear to me that we were going to get little to nothing done.

The lesson plan for the day was to wrap up our lessons covering the days of the week and school subjects by giving the kids the chance to make their own ideal schedules and present them to the class. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how excited the kids were to do this. The closest Aki came to participating was to again take off his shirt and tape school subject cards to his nipples. Kinno, who acts as something of a ringleader for the class’s girls, actually filled out her ideal schedule and the other girls followed her lead. As soon as she was done, she started spreading glue on the palm of her hand, and again, most of the girls followed suit. There was only one student who wasn’t taken in by the mob mentality and behaved perfectly amidst all this chaos. This girl’s father was also a teacher, so maybe she took pity on us. I’d occasionally walk over to her desk to check on her work and give quiet praise.

Aki ramped up his rebellion. A couple other boys began acting out a bit too, but their antics were merely mild imitations of Aki. At one point he left the classroom and returned with a camcorder. Where this kid found a video camera is beyond me, but he plugged the adapter into the wall socket and began recording the class. It took the VP quite a while to get the camcorder out of his hands, and after taking it away once, he grabbed it again and again. I almost wished the VP had just let him tape away, because the kid was at his least disruptive whilst distracted by the electronic device. After Aki had moved on from the camera, one of the other students (the erase thrower from the last act) picked it up too. The VP quickly took it from him and he seemed to lose interest immediately.

Still not satisfied, Aki eventually grabbed a wooden dowel from the corner of the room. The staff had probably been part of a large rollout map, but now was just a long wooden stick. Since you obviously don’t want your out-of-control student armed like Donatello, the VP immediately had his hands on the potential weapon as well. The two grappled for control of the stick, the VP trying to be gentle but firm. Clutching the rod the whole way, Aki walked over to his desk and sat down. Still grasping the other end, the VP followed along. Once Aki was in his seat, the VP pulled the stick with more force, yanking out of Aki’s talons with two tugs. This clearly angered the boy and he reacted by throwing a pair of scissors in the VP’s general direction. The scissors didn’t hit anyone, but that was definitely crossing a line. Still, class carried on just like normal – awkwardly.

We didn’t get to introducing the next chapter’s vocabulary like I had intended. I’d say we barely completed that schedule-making activity. There was never enough class cohesion for the students to present their schedules to the class, which was really the only important part of it. By the time the chime sounded, I was more than ready to leave. And I still had the sixth graders to teach!

I left that class feeling bad for the poor Vice Principal, as well as for the one student who behaved perfectly. That girl’s father is a teacher at the junior high, so I know the family pretty well. Sure enough, he asked me about the class the next day. Apparently things were so unpleasant for his daughter that she hadn’t wanted to go back to school the next day.

The following week, Mrs. Seo had still not recovered from her illness. This was my last class with the 5th graders for the year, and I’m proud to say that they probably learned a couple new words, like “iced tea” and “dessert”. (We were learning vocabulary for ordering food.) There was still plenty of craziness, but we got through the lot of new food terms. Even Aki halfheartedly participated, though mostly just to mispronounce “hotdog” as “hot chinpo” (ホットちんぽ – hot penis). I have a feeling that getting Mrs. Seo back in the classroom would have been the only way to restore order. Oh well.

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Setsubun (節分)

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内!) This is what you yell as you throw soybeans or peanuts at the pour guy in the ogre mask. “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” It means, “Demons out, good fortune in!” and it encapsulates the Setsubun (節分) experience.

Setsubun (節分) is the cultural holiday celebrating the last day of winter in the traditional Japanese calendar, usually landing on February 3rd or 4th. Historically, this used to be closer to when New Year’s was celebrated.  Apparently, it was thought that New Year’s was the time when the Spirit World was closest to the physical world, and therefore there would be more spirits wandering about. Since an increase of spiritual activity inherently meant a higher possibility that a malevolent spirit might mess with your stuff — or your health — people performed little rituals to ward off the bad spirits. With all the superstition and the connection to winter’s end, you could basically think of it as Groundhogs Day, only awesome.

The defining ritual of Setsubun is called mamemaki (豆まき), or “beans tossing”. It’s similar to throwing rice at a wedding, except that in this case, beans are hurled at an oni (鬼 – ogre or demon). To accomplish this, someone has to play the role of the oni, either by wearing a mask, or donning a full costume. The idea is to expel the ogre from your house, and in turn, scare off any evil spirits. Typically dried soybeans are thrown, because nothing scares off the demons like projectile legumes.

The dried soybeans tossed at the oni are called fukumame (福豆), literally meaning “fortune beans”. This is where the new phrase comes in: “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内!–  Demons out, good fortune in!) In Hokkaido, mamemaki is a little different than in the rest of Japan. Instead of dried soybeans, in Hokkaido, unshelled peanuts are used. This is because part of the ritual involves eating beans in number equal to the years of your age. In Hokkaido, all the soybeans would get lost in the snow, so the clever northerners used peanuts, which could be easily collected afterwards. Either that, or Hokkaido Oni have a lethal peanut allergy.

 

On Friday February 3rd, Setsubun was upon us.  I had been looking forward to it since New Year’s, when Hiroko had told me a little about the custom.  Being a fan of Japanese folklore, I’m easily fascinated by things like oni (鬼) and tengu (天狗), kitsune (狐 – fox) and tanuki (狸 – raccoon dog). In recognition of the day, the school lunch included a little pack of soybeans with a cartoon oni on the bag.

That morning at the junior high, Yusuke explained a few more details of the holiday. Apparently there’s a Setsubun custom in which a special makizushi (巻寿司 – sushi roll) is typically eaten. The roll is called ehoumaki (恵方巻 – literally, “lucky direction roll”), and like all of the other customs, it’s supposed to bring you good luck. Ehoumaki is a fat sushi roll, which you are supposed to eat uncut. It’s supposed to contain seven ingredients, because seven is a lucky number in reference to the Shichi-fuku-jin (七福神), the “Seven Lucky Gods” of Japanese folklore.  (These seven gods are pretty interesting, as most of them are derived from Hindu or Buddhist deities.) As the roll’s name implies, you have to face the proper “lucky direction” when you eat it, and this direction changes each year. For 2012, the lucky direction was north-north-west. Yet another rule is that the whole roll must be eaten in its entirety; otherwise it might not bring you good luck. But best part of the ehoumaki tradition is that you have to eat your fat sushi roll in complete silence; no talking until you’ve devoured that monster. If you want good luck, them’s the rules.

That afternoon I taught a class at Hizuka Elementary. When the English lesson was completed, I was surprised to discover that it was time for mamemaki (豆まき – bean tossing), and that I was invited to join in. Kazama-sensei and I both donned oni masks to play the part of the demons, and each of the nine Hizuka students got bags of unshelled peanuts. As soon as Kazama-sensei and I began our ogre-like growling and menacing posturing, the kids unleashed a legume hailstorm, pelting us mercilessly. The oni mask was simply cut out of cardboard, so it offered little protection for the direct hits that I took in the face. At least one of those kids has the makings of a Major League pitcher, I think.

After the shelling was over, everyone cracked open the peanut and enjoyed a nutty snack. The ritual is to eat one bean (in this case, peanut) for every year of your age. That meant that each student was supposed to eat 12 nuts or less, yet I was expected to eat 28 nuts. I chatted with Kazama-sensei and Susuki-sensei while eating and quickly lost count. When I headed out, Kazama gave me the cardboard oni masks as a memento, three in all.

When I got back to Bikuni, I made a pit stop at the junior high to get some lesson materials in order. Since I happened to have oni masks with me on Setsubun, I decided to put one on and wear it into the school as a joke. By an amazing stroke of luck, the Vice Principal just happened to see me coming, oni mask and all. As I opened the door of the staff entrance, I was met with a mini-barrage of beans, complete with the accompanying chant, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” Later, when I walked into the Board of Education with the oni mask on, I didn’t get pelted, but it did give Ihara-san, Yamazaki-san, and Katsuo-san a good laugh.

That evening I was invited over to Yamazaki-san’s house for a family dinner. We had sukiyaki, one of my favorites, and I brought a bottle of awesome Italian wine as my culinary contribution. It was Terre di Trinci’s Montefalco Rosso, from Umbria. The bottle had been a gift from my Seattle soccer teammate Massi, and I had been saving it for nearly one year, waiting for the right occasion.

After dinner I booted up my laptop to show everyone the pictures of my brother’s wedding. Grandma Yamazaki had been waiting forever to see them because I was always forgetting to bring my computer with me. Yamazaki commented that I was currently looking thinner than I appeared in the wedding photos. The difference was only slight, but I attributed it to drinking less lately.

After dinner and picture show-and-tell, it was time for Setsubun’s defining ritual: mamemaki. Yamazaki wore the oni mask and I joined in with the kids in throwing peanuts at him. I particularly enjoyed shouting “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” As he was hit repeatedly with peanuts, Oni Yamazaki backed into the genkan (玄関 – entry way), and then eventually out of the house completely. To make sure the evil spirits were expelled, some nuts were also tossed out the door after him. Once that was done, everyone helped pick up the peanuts that had been scattered about the room. The family sat down on floor and each ate an age-appropriate number of beans.

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Press START to Continue…

As you may have already heard, I’ve really been on the fence about whether or not to renew my contract with the company. I’ve flip-flopped back and forth, unable to fully commit to what my next year with entail. If I renew, I could stay in Japan for another year, and continue teaching English in the über quiet fishing village of Shakotan, living in fairly isolated Bikuni town. If I decline, could come back to Seattle and get started on the next phase of my life, most likely involving going back to school so that I can become a teacher in the US. More pressingly, now that my beloved Marissa is back in the States, I have new motivation to return. I’ve spent many homesick nights dreaming of everything and everyone I miss in Seattle, and now that my girlfriend has returned, the longing has increased exponentially.

So much thinking...

Japan is a fantastic place, a Rising Sun Neverland filled intriguing customs and kindhearted people. (Kindhearted, unbelievably generous, genuinely wonderful people, actually.) The friends I’ve made here have become very important to me, and I’ll need to keep in touch with them after I return to the States. In my first year Japan, I’ve been able to accomplish many of my goals for my journey, and I’ve have countless surprising experiences that I didn’t even expect. It’s been one hell of a ride.

But the fact of the matter is, I have not yet done everything that I set out to do. If I were to leave Japan now, I would surely look back on it with a regretful, incomplete feeling. I’d wonder what could have been, if only Shakotan had had one more year with their first ALT; their first ever foreigner resident. After how welcoming and accommodating this community has been to me, I owe it to them to give it my all. When the next school year begins, I can hit the ground running, already well acquainted with the students, the teachers, and the Board of Education, not to mention other individuals in the community. A new ALT would need some time to adjust to this place, but I know it well, and I’m ready to kick some ass…speaking purely academically, of course.

Serious face.

Even though it has been an impossibly difficult decision, one that I’ve lost plenty of sleep over, I have finally made up my mind. The kids need me. Shakotan needs me. My homestay-esque family in Sapporo even kind of needs me. Oh, and the company needs me to a certain extant. Maintaining a sense of purpose in Seattle would probably be a bit difficult for me at the moment, but it’s strong here in Hokkaido. I know what I need to do.

And so, the journey continues…

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