Friday, April 6, 2007

News and Random Notes from Nihon!

It's election time here. A few weeks ago, some unknown agency erected signboards with numbered slots and within a few days those numbered slots had bloomed like the sakura, only with posters featuring photos of various candidates for office.

I have no idea what the political parties are here, but they have more than 2. The main one is the LDP, or Liberal Democratic Party. That sounds really liberal, right? Bill O'Reilly's face is already turning red and there's a little shiny fleck of spittle at the corner of his lip, and Ann Coulter is banging her head against the wall just from the name alone.

Liberal? Democratic? Wrong, my friend. This is the party of Koizumi Junichiro, the previous prime minister who privatized the post office, and Abe Shinzo, the current PM whose hardline stance on North Korea and visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (much like Koizumi's before him) have alienated other Asian nations. Abe also wants to change the Japanese constitution to allow the use of military force abroad.

There are some other parties, but the LDP has been in charge almost constantly since the end of WWII. I suppose the main thing in Japan is stability, though. Keep the shinkansen running on time, make people believe that indeed, "Japan is safety," and all's well with the people. I do miss Koizumi's magnificent main of gray hair.

Election season means noise, noise, noise. If the Grinch hated Whoville and its raucous Christmas celebrations, he would go absolutely ape shit over Japan's election season. All day long at the station, candidates speechify. Endlessly. We can hear them through the window glass at our school, roughly a half block away.

And then there are the sound trucks. At regular intervals throughout the day, starting around 8 or 9am, these minivans with loudspeakers on top and political signage along their sides cruise through the neighborhoods. Inside are volunteers in colorful windbreakers and, with white-gloved hands, they wave to passersby. They even wave to me.

I cracked up my two high school students by describing my sound truck encounters. I described how I love to wave to the political volunteers, and how they happily wave back and smile and nod. But they have to know I'm not voting for their candidate.

I framed my face with my hands and said, "Look at me! Look at my face! Do I look like I'm going to vote in your election this year? Do I look like a voter?" and the girls cackled and clapped.

In other news, my doctor wants me to have surgery. This is something I can't afford because I don't have health insurance here. Medical care isn't crazy-expensive in Japan, but it can add up... and I'm sure something as major as surgery and a hospital stay will not come so cheap. My first trip to the clinic was only 13,000 yen (around $140) and I got medicine. This time it was about half that, medicine included. The surgery they recommended is only 53,000 yen... but it requires a 1-week hospital stay. They said I could do it in two days, though. There's the problem... I can't miss even that much work and I don't have a few thousand dollars to toss around.

The whole thing is ridiculous anyway. George Brett had this same problem back in 1980, had surgery and played in the World Series a day later. I know medical technology has advanced since then. And Japan is a thoroughly modern, up-to-date nation. It's not like I'm in some isolated, sparsely populated exotic land.

Maybe I'd get a different diagnosis in Tokyo. But it's no to surgery, yes to the Plan B they offered.

Our school has lost a lot of adult students, and a few kids, too. But with an influx of new bodies, we now have more kids than ever before. My boss is pretty happy about this because he didn't advertise our kid's classes at all last year. This is all word-of-mouth, which means our school's reputation has grown.

It also means we have to buckle down and work harder to maintain this reputation. You don't do any laurel-resting in Japan. Getting praised means... doubling your efforts! So we've had some kid's classes meeting and changed our method to try to bring uniformity to what we offer.

These parents are not playing around. They believe speaking and understanding English is a huge advantage for their children and they will be quick to complain if they don't feel their little ones are improving.

I know I'm too slack on the kids. It's my American way, and also my father's influence. He was pretty laissez-faire as far as discipline went. He pretty much expected that we'd be doing the right thing but he was a soft touch. And so, therefore, am I.

The parental concern is both a drag and a benefit. We're under scrutiny, but so are the children. So for the most part, they work hard. Most of our kids are cheerful and dilligent. I've got a couple of boys who are jokers, but they're nothing compared to what a teacher would've faced from my best friend and I in a similar situation. I mean, we once caused a Cub Scout leader to pull his car to the side of the road and berate us in language that would've made R. Lee Ermey's drill instructor character from Full Metal Jacket to say, "Whoa! Calm down there, buddy!"

But having pleasant kids who are actually there to learn and obey is such a blessing, compared to Nova classes which tend to be comedy improv versions of Lord of the Flies with a little Battle Royale tossed in for variety's sake.

This week, I declared war on bad pronunciation. No more letting kids slide with using "dees" instead of "this." I stopped Wednesday's lesson a few dozen times to have the kids practice making the "th" sound. As far as I know, that's one of those sounds that absolutely doesn't exist in the Japanese language, along with l, v and z... at least not in the way we're familiar with.

"What did you do this weekend?"

"What... deed... you do... dees... weekend."

"Uh uh... 'What DID you do THis weekend?'"

"What did you... do... dees... weekend."

"Nope nope nope. THis. This. This. Tongue under your teeth like this. Th. Th."

"Dees. Dees. D. D."

"Th. This. This."

"D. Dis. This."

"Good! 'What did you do this weekend?'"

"What did you do this weekend?"


Victory is sweet.


Swinebread said...

Sorry to hear about your health issues… time, money and health, why can’t these three ever seen to connect?

English is so hard for some folks to pronounce… it seems like its much more in the front of the mouth than Japanese is.

Joel Bryan said...

Swinebread- Thanks! Yeah, English has some sounds the Japanese language completely lacks.