Monday, January 29, 2007

Asakusa Kannon Temple, May 2006!

On my triumphant return to Japan in May, 2006, I spent a few days recuperating from jet lag in Tokyo... which is probably my favorite destination here. It's a place where I can cut loose, a big megalopolis that's not too difficult to get around in if you pay attention to the English signage.

On my last few trips, I've made a concerted effort to visit places outside the Shinjuku/Harajuku/Shibuya triangle I spend most of my time exploring. For example...


Asakusa is home to three things: the oldest bar in Japan, the Asahi Building and Sensoji, otherwise known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple. Which was built in 645, so it's a bit older than Japan's oldest bar. And I visited 2 out of three of these places.

This is my friend and me at the main gate of Sensoji. I think the orange cones to the left have a special ceremonial significance that doesn't translate well cross-culturally. Sensoji is a large temple complex surrounded by small shopping streets with very cool little shops. There are semi-hidden speakers that play traditional Japanese music, so it's a little like being at Edoland in Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, only much more authentic.

This is me in front of the temple proper. I'm giving the two-finger salute that universally signifies "peace," but in Japan means, "I'm having my photo taken."

This is the two of us in front of the temple, which is really amazing. I guess growing up in America and being a huge movie buff, I tend to think of things in terms of film sets. This is one impressive place for someone like me, but the cinematic quality is enhanced by the careful grooming of your experience there with the small shops and canned music.

I was reminded of the quote from Patton where he said something to the effect Morocco being equal parts Bible and Hollywood.

We paid some yen for good luck and got our fortunes from some wooden drawers. My friend got a mediocre prediction for the coming year, and was amazed when I drew the best possible fortune.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Navy Pilot," Season 8...

Japanese TV

I have SkyPerfect TV, the satellite television provider. So I get a number of channels like Discovery Japan, Fox Japan, Movies Plus, Animal Planet, AXN and Cartoon Network. But one of my favorites is SuperDrama TV, which shows an odd mix of older fare and more recent programs, things like Dallas, The OC, KnightRider, Star Trek: Enterprise and soon, both The Sopranos and the unlamented 1979 Bad News Bears spinoff series, starring the very-lamented Jack Warden in the also much-lamented Walter Matthau's part, Coach Morris Buttermaker.

With Meeno "Voyagers!" Peluce as Tanner Boyle. Come on, who are they kidding? Engelberg you could replace, but Tanner Boyle? Chris Barnes owned that role, man!

By the way, Bad News Bears (both the movie and the series) is known as Ganbatte Bears! here in Japan. That's a sports cheer that means roughly, "Work hard, Bears!" And talking about title changes...

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Make love, not war! Harm orders a surgical tongue strike on
Mac's tonsils.

Right now, they're showing the eighth season of JAG, the long-running show about a stalwart U.S. Navy investigator. Only here, it's called Navy Pilot. I don't have the heart (or the ability) to tell people the title really should be Navy Aviator.

And Harm's not even an aviator on the show, although I think he was at one time. I don't know. Not a fan.

I wonder what people here think of this show, though. It's pretty corny but sincere in a way that grows on you, unless you're completely cynical about the military. It shows American officers at their best, in a totally admiring way... it must have a different impact here where American miltary prowess is at a popularity low (much like in the rest of the world) roughly equal to mid-1945 levels.

Still, I love my country in its (usual) sincerity and unabashed corniness. Maybe Navy Pilot can be a positive force, a good-hearted ambassador from home.

Can You Eat Natto? You'd Better!

Japan's not immune to the popular delusions of crowds, either. On January 7th, the Hakkutsu! Aru Aru Daijiten II, (English translation: Navy Pilot) program on Kansai Telecasting Corp. made the dubious claim that eating two meals of natto a day will cause you to lose weight. Japan is a weight-conscious nation where even the thinnest of women are frequently dieting and telling people, "I have lose my weight."

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Natto... the right thing to do, the
right way to do it.

And because natto is a staple of Japanese breakfast diets, it- like practically every other traditional food here- is frequently touted as healthy and the source of the Japanese people's famous longevity. Which McDonald's is currently doing everything in their power to change.

End result? I've never seen one, but this has all the earmarks of a run... on natto. Supermarkets quickly sold through their stocks around Japan after the show aired, with natto companies the beneficiaries. Then, as often happens with fad diets, someone pointed out the data was completely fictional.

This led to KTV's releasing a retraction and an apology from company president Soichiro Chigusa.

Victimless crime, you say? Think again. One of our students now has to eat natto every day because her mom bought a ton of it during the pro-natto hysteria phase.

"And I hate natto," she told everyone in class.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kenny Blankenship is the Governator...

Why not? California has a governor who used to play a murderous cyborg from the future. On January 21, Higashi Sonomanma, better known in the US as Vic Romano's beer-n-chick-crazy sidekick Kenny Blankenship on the tv show MXC, was elected governor of Miyazaki Prefecture.

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No word yet on how many kegs the victory
celebration will feature...

Here's Higashi in his prime, in his guise as himself on Japanese tv. But I'm warning you... if you're offended by the idea of Mickey Mouse pasties and strippers dancing in sequins, you shouldn't watch this. Yeah, you really shouldn't watch this:

Still if this video is to be believed, Kenny is Kenny in any language.

In a semi-reflection of Arnold Schwarzenegger's election, the previous Miyazaki govnernor, Ando Tadahiro, resigned, setting up Higashi's bid. Only instead of a recall, Ando quit because he faced imminent arrest on corruption charges.

A Miyazaki native, and with no political party affiliation, Higashi jumped into the race in December. Despite downplaying his comedic career, and a bizarre gaffe in which he accidentally implied bid-rigging was sometimes necessary, his celebrity proved irresistable to the Miyazaki voters. During his campaign, he refused all celebrity endorsements and made his speeches in the local dialect and declared his intention to make the prefecture his "final home."

So in something of an upset, he defeated even a former government official backed by the ruling coalition.

A graduate of Senshu University, Higashi became the protege of acclaimed comedian, director and universal genius Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, appearing on Takeshi's Castle (Fuun Takeshi-jo) during its popular run from 1986-89. Takeshi's Castle is the show that became famous around the world as "that crazy Japanese show where people get hurt."

Like governors Ando and Schwarzenegger, Higashi is no stranger to scandal. He and his wife, actress Kato Kazuko, divorced in February 2006, after 16 years of marriage marred by his extra-marital affairs. Higashi subsequently became embroiled in a controversy when he was caught accepting the "favors" of an underage entertainer at a sex club.

I remember students telling me about this one last year, but it never clicked with me who he was or his relationship to MXC.

Supposedly, at one time he also assaulted a junior tv presenter, but I can't find any mention of that beyond one brief sentence in an article on his election.

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Fuun Takeshi-jo later showed up on Spike TV in America where it's known as Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, or MXC.

Higashi's also featured on my popular t-shirt design:

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Popular in that I've sold 12 of them on CafePress.

Higashi Sonomanma, we salute you!

Friday, January 19, 2007

This is What I Mean by Bilingual...

Teacher (me): So... what do you think Japan's international role will be in coming generations?

Student 1: Japan's role in future generations? Japan has to... (closes her eyes, buries her head in her arms) MUZUKASHII NE?!

Student 2: Yep!

Student 1: I hate this topic!

A minute after that, she was fluently articulating about it anyway. Later...

Student 1: This reminds me of earth science. I love earth science... our teacher is so funny. He is so excited about science. Every day, he goes to Sanaru-ko...

Student 2: Do you know Sanaru-ko? It's the most dirty lake in Japan.

Student 1: And he goes to Sanaru-ko every day to take samples. He told us in 100 years it may be clean again.

Teacher: Oh yeah, a friend told me they dredged the bottom there one time to try to clean it.

Student 2 (nods): It didn't work, did it?

Teacher: No. He said they dumped it all in an empty lot and everything there died.

Student 2 (laughing): Kowai!

Teacher: There's a park in my hometown that used to be a lake. One night the residents heard a noise and the next day, when they woke up, the lake was empty.

Student 1: Maji? Why? What happened?

Teacher: Well, the rock under my hometown is soft limestone, and there a lot of underground caves and tunnels. Sometimes they collapse and surface water can drain into them. It's similar in Florida, where sometimes these holes open up and swallow cars and entire neighborhoods.

Student 1 (laughing in disbelief): MAJI?! Kowai...

Student 2: Kowai!

After that they talked about their earth science teacher again in both English (to me) and Japanese (to each other).

Glossary of Japanese Terms:

kowai (koh-why): scary, frightening. Don't confuse this with kawaii, in which note the initial a vowel (a as in father) and double i; pronounce both: kah-wah-ee-ee. Or else you may find yourself insulting someone by declaring their baby to be frightening.
Maji? (mah-jee): "Really?" with a rising, "question" inflection, but has a declarative when said with a flat intonation: "Really," or "I'm for real when I say this." Usually "Maji de?" (mah-jee day) but frequently used without de. Supposedly this is a more masculine form, but teenagers and young people of both genders favor maji, while older people use "Honto?" or "Honto ni?"
muzukashii (moo-zoo-kah-she-ee): difficult. A frequent classroom exclamation, or aside.
Muzukashii ne? (moo-zoo-kah-she-ee nay): "Difficult, isn't it?" or "It's difficult, huh?"

I Was Wrong... It's the Worst Bird Flu!

The tests are in from the bird flu-infected poultry farm in Miyazaki Prefecture, and it's the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu. This is the fifth avian flu outbreak in Japan, and killed 3,500 chickens last week.

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No word on people, however. That's the good news. In other good news... and to get off a potentially morbid subject... I had ramen for my early dinner today. It's the first ramen I've had in over a year.

Ramen is the same thing as lo mein, imported from China but transformed into something indelibly Japanese. If you were one of those destitute Dostoyevskian university students who grew a beard and seldom bathed while subsisting on 99 cent instant ramen packets, you're woefully unprepared for the full Japanese ramen experience.

This is a country where there are ramen museums. Ramen museums! Entire museums devoted to a noodle dish.

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This is shoyu ramen. Mine had onions all over it, and half an egg.
Plus seaweed. The lone cook thoughtfully included a spoon.

Ramen shops are fixtures in any city large enough to have restaurants, and most people have their favorites. Some are large, and some are tiny hole-in-the-wall places, but most feature ticket machines where you make your choice, and bars where you sit and eat, elbow to elbow.

I'm pretty sure I had shoyu ramen, which is a brown, soy-based ramen. But mine had a pork slice in it, so it possibly could have been chashu ramen, or chashumen. Beyond the noodles and pork, ramen's a pretty hearty soup, full of shredded onions, seaweed, half an egg and nutritious lard.

Lots and lots of lard.

Being an illiterate here, I had to carefully compare kanji and katakana under the wall-mounted photographs before approaching the ticket machine. Some machines have pictures over the buttons, but many have hand-lettered cards instead. My advice is to be extremely cautious in pressing the button...

Not once but twice, I accidentally ordered some kind of spicy chili powder-infused ramen. The first half of the bowl was delicious, with a playful biting sensation on my tongue and lips. The second half was like drinking from a lava flow in the depths of Hell.

My lips and tongue began to melt, then my eyes exploded and ran from their sockets, down my cheeks while my nose spewed a thin, clear liquid that, after careful laboratory analysis, was determined to be my brain and other internal organs.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bilingualism is Good for Your Mind!

In America, Spanish is pretty useful as a second language, and I'm damn proud to say it's mine, although I could really use a few brush-up classes. Not only that, learning a language is fun. At the very least, you can learn ways to curse at people and not have them understand a word you're saying.

It's also beneficial for your mental health. According to a recent study done in Canada, learning a second language and using it during your entire life can delay the onset of dementia by as many as 4 years. That's a pretty important reason for someone like me, with a family history of Alzheimer's.

Peter Payne, being an American living in Japan with a bi-cultural family, is ensuring his children become equally proficient in both English and Japanese (warning... that link has some sexy pics towards the bottom). He does it with a simple family rule that at home: they watch movies only in English. Those are some very lucky kids! They will have the best of both languages and a larger well of cultural experience to draw from than most people, regardless of nationality.

In my time here, I've met quite a few people like that, who seem to have two language operating systems in their minds, and I'm always impressed and even a bit jealous.

There's a Japanese woman who works at Down Under Bar who can go from perfect Nihongo to Aussie-accented native level English from sentence to sentence, depending on their customer mix. Some of our upper level students mix Japanese and English with fluent grace... or else rude good humor... in my classes.

So it really, really irks me that in my home country, where we constantly call ourselves the greatest nation in the world, we're not pushing foreign language education enough. In all the hysteria about immigrants not learning English and assimilating, we're ignoring a vast population of complacent, self-satisfied people who speak only English, know only English and have absolutely no interest in learning foreign languages or about foreign cultures.

Here in Japan, millions spend their spare time learning a second language, usually English. So much so that the topic of debate at a recent debate meet one of our top students participated in was, "Should Japan Adopt English as its Official Second Language?"

Despite a number of loan words borrowed from languages other than English, it already is the unofficial second language. It's pervasive, at least in small amounts. You'll be watching tv and a commercial for a J-Pop band's new release will announce... well... "NEW RELEASE!" or "BIG-U HIT-O!"

Recently, as part of the New Year's celebrations, stores and boutiques have been offering "The Bargain" (a popular name for seasonal clearance sales, i.e., "Zaza The Bargain," Zaza City's yearly event). I was watching the Martin Scorcese film The Aviator and at the end, the hosts talked about it in Japanese, peppering their discussion with English expressions like "Main theme," and "Who am I?"

It's not always perfect English, and usually involves what we call "katakana pronunciation," (consonants must be followed by vowels here, which sometimes adds a syllable or two to something that might otherwise be easily understood as English), but there it is.

There's a joke that goes:

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American.

I guess I come from the standpoint where I can't imagine why anyone would choose to be ignorant, or why someone wouldn't want to learn as much as he or she can about the world around them. Yes, people who intend to become United States citizens should make an effort to learn English even if just for the convenience and security (the way I'm struggling to learn Japanese here in Japan), but native English speakers in the United States should also learn Spanish, or French, or Chinese, or Japanese or any language that interests them.

They should do what many of my Japanese students do- just pick a country and learn as much about it as they can. Take a few trips there. Expand their horizons. One of the few positives about our old military draft was it took country boys, like my dad, and mingled them with a bunch of guys from other parts and cultures of their home country, then sent them overseas to experience foreign lands.

Until the end of his life, my father talked about how beautiful the United Kingdom was, despite still containing quite a bit of recently destroyed real estate left over from WWII. He often remarked about the neatly trimmed lawns running down to the riversides. As a farmer's son, that really impressed him.

Television and movies make poor substitutes. Too often they're filled with hateful, racist stereotypes. Just recently I've become increasingly troubled with the preponderance of ridiculous Asian imagery in comic books... nothing but martial arts, yakuza gunfights, sword-blazing modern day ninja wars and Dragon Ladies with predatory hyper-sexualism.

It's not that these ideas can't be fun when placed in perspective, but too often they replace the real thing in our imaginations- they contain nothing of the classical music-loving high school girl, the young guy really into motorcycles, the older woman who spends her free time reading books to schoolchildren, or the woman who takes one day a week to teach junior high kids how to play the o-koto (Japanese harp).

If more Americans got their heads out of their Yankee Doodle asses and started looking around, really learning about the world at large, stop assuming that if you scratch a foreigner you'll find an American inside, we'd be less likely to misjudge the cultures with which we're dealing and get into horrific messes like the current one that shall remain nameless in this blog.

Who knows... maybe that elusive goal of world peace might actually become a reality. Or are wanting to be informed, smart and at peace with the world no longer considered American values?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bird Flu Hits Japan...

In the Scary News Dept., I just read an online article at Japan Times about a poultry farm in Miyazaki Prefecture where chickens have been dying from one of the H5 strains of Avian flu. They're still trying to determine if it's a weaker form or the nasty H5N1 strain that kills people. According to the report, 750 chickens died there last week but it hasn't affected any humans so far.

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I'm thinking it's the weaker one, because in January 2006, a milder strain of H5 hit a poultry farm in Ibaraki Prefecture. And I can think of one person back in the United States who would've flipped out if he'd heard this news.

Believe me, Japanese officials will slam down on this with all their resources. So no worries.

It's University Entrance Exam Season...

One of my students reminded me of this today. Her son takes his university entrance exams Saturday and Sunday. This is happening all over Japan currently. And it's no small deal; if you pass these exams and get into one of the best universities, you're made.

If you fail... you become a freeter. This is the Nihon version of the slacker, the jobless slob who lives at home with his or her parents, maybe working part-time jobs but generally going nowhere.

In some ways, this is rebellion against the crushing office worker conformity that is Japanese adulthood. Some freeters are doing the "find yourself" thing, much like our slackers during the 90s. They work the part-time jobs and travel or study English until they decide what they want to do with their lives.

I'll never forget the time my friends and I were invited to a woman's house for a big feast during my first trip to Japan. Partway through the meal, her son came in. He was in his late 20s, and had just spent his post-grad years traveling and backpacking in Asia and Europe.

"What are you doing now?" someone asked him.

After a sigh, he said, "Now... I'm a salaryman."

Another choice is to become ronin. Ronin is a term from the old samurai days, which means a freelance or masterless samurai. Now it means a kid who bombed the entrance exams and has to spend an extra year or two studying in cram school to pass and get into a good college. It's possible, but it's difficult, like trying to compete in a 40 meter race starting 10 meters farther back from the other athletes.

The pressure on high school students is so far beyond anything I experienced. Their time investment in school is probably twice that of an American student's. But if they leap this massive hurdle, they get 4 years of college student fun. At this point, things tend to reverse themselves. Here, American college students are considered fairly studious, while Japanese students supposedly play and get drunk a lot.

Well... we know the truth behind that particular myth. College is a time for working hard and playing hard and drinking is universal. But if Japanese students do get this time to breathe and experience independence, then I say it's a good thing.

Because soon enough will come lifetime employment and wearing identical black business suits, and riding the local trains endlessly while clutching briefcases, a stunned look on their faces.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Yes, Virginia (and whoever else reads this), There Is a Yakuza...

And this is what they look like:

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The yakuza has been around for a long time. No matter how orderly your culture, there are certain vices that its members want to indulge in, vices that may not be legal but- all moral judgements aside- are frequently necessary outlets for negative energy and stress relief.

If you want to see photos of Japan's home grown, tattooed organized crime organization, you should visit Slate. They have an interactive slide show with some fascinating pictures of this ubiqitous yet little-discussed part of modern Japanese life.

I've only had 2 encounters with the yakuza. It's probably better as a foreigner in Japan to have as few as possible.

I'll tell you about the first time, which was one night when my friend M and I were walking around downtown Hamamatsu after having dinner together. We were talking about things in general, wandering aimlessly as we talked.

At one point, we went down this dimly-lit narrow sidestreet behind the Zaza City shopping complex. This particular street is lined with small bars, many of which have serious-looking men in dark suits standing out front during business hours. And as we walked, that's pretty much what we saw.

M whispered to me, "This is yakuza street..."

"Don't worry," I reassured her. "If they start anything, I'll pick you up and run."

The second time was New Year's Day, 2005, in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo. Let's not talk about that one.

According to the online site The Crime Library, some sources say their origins are found in the 1600s, with kabuki-mono (crazy ones), samurai who dressed in wild costumes. The yakuza themselves claim they're the descendants of the machi-yokko (town servants) who protected villages from corrupt government officials in a sort of Robin Hood fashion. I suppose in this way, they're somewhat similar to the Mafia in its early Sicilian history.

The downtrodden, the outcast; they band together and ward off the depradations of official justice. That's the mythical view, anyway. In reality, they prey on the very people they claim to protect.

Whatever their origin, in modern Japan, the yakuza control gambling, prostitution and the ever-available pachinko parlor trade, plus loan sharking and all the stuff you'd expect organized criminals to be involved with. There's an unspoken agreement between the police and the yakuza, and one reason there's not a lot of street crime in Japan is it's not profitable to stir the waters.

The Crime Library pegs their number at roughly 110,000, organized into 2,500 families. The site contrasts this with the US, where with double Japan's population, there are only around 20,000 members involved organized crime, even with the Mafia factored in.

They also have connections to Japan's right wing politicians, often funding the loudspeaker vans that drive around blaring political slogans during election times here. In this role, the yakuza see themselves as protectors of all the traditional Japanese values and mores.

One of the showier events in yakuza history took place in 1992. As colorful criminals, the yakuza are popular action film fodder. Many of these movies give romanticized versions of yakuza life, in the same vein as The Godfather films, or feature hardcore violence and mayhem.

Filmmaker Itami Juzo, director of the internationally acclaimed comedy Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman, about a persistent tax collector), made a movie called Minbo no Onna (Anti-Extortion Woman). This film was a different take on the yakuza, one that wasn't so flattering. In it, a woman does battle with ridiculous gangsters, besting them not with violence but with her wits.

Evidently, the real life criminals didn't take to being depicted as comical buffoons, and waited outside Itami's home. They slashed his face and neck, landing him in the hospital. He survived the attack only to commit suicide in 1997 after being accused by the press of infidelity.

His final film, 1997's Marutai No Onna, features another female protagonist, this time a middle-aged actress who witnesses a murder by a shady cult and has to enter police protection. Actually... it's a comedy, albeit one that explores some of the dark themes that haunted Itami after the assault.

You can read more about the yakuza in the on the Crime Library site.

Curry Rice!

If you ask a student what he or she is having for dinner that night, the answer will more than likely be "Curry rice." I wish I had 100 yen for every time I've gotten that as a reply. Today, I got an email from Peter Payne of J-List (careful with that link... some of the product pics are for adults only), and in it, he talks about two interesting concepts here in Japan.

The first is "shinyo," which is trust. When you do business with someone, for example, a contractor remodeling your home, you create shinyo. If I'm understanding this correctly, it means an ongoing relationship based on never being charged more for a job than is reasonable. They want your business for life, so they're not out to rip you off... unlike in America, where they want the short term financial kick.

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Isn't this a nice dish of curry? I don't know if I should eat it or hang
it on the wall. Since it's a photo, probably the latter.

But my favorite part of the update is where he writes about curry, probably because our students love curry so I hear a lot about it almost every week. Curry, as you probably know, is an Indian dish. If you don't know what curry is, it's gravy. Gravy with chopped vegetables on rice. Only unlike our popular soul food/country cookin' dish of rice and gravy in Georgia, curry is spicy. And probably healthier because it's not made with fried chicken grease and flour.

One aspect about Japanese culture is its ability to adopt something from abroad and really take it to heart. Baseball, for example (which is being replaced by soccer these days thanks to recurring World Cup fever), punk rock, the tv show 24, and curry.

There's a curry chain around here called Koko Ichiban (and in Hawaii!). It's like the International House of Curry, just a plain diner-style place that serves curry in various levels of spicy intensity. If I remember correctly, the scale runs from 1 to 10, with 10 being roughly the equivalent of pouring molten steel slag directly onto your tongue.

But curry is also a vastly popular meal to make at home. I suppose because it's easy to make, hearty and features rice, which is a staple here the way bread is back in the US. According to my research, you put the rice on the left side of the plate and the curry on the right. I don't know why, but it makes a neat presentation.

So if you want to try authentic Japanese homestyle food, I recommend you make curry.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It's a New Year with New Plans...

Or maybe not. But I do have a new spread of classes and some new pressures to deal with.

But my Mondays should prove interesting because I'm teaching a new class, with this one student we've had for about as long as I've been there.

She's hilarious, always laughing and smiling. Her English is pretty scattershot but while she protests that she's too shy (pointing at her face and saying, "I'm shy," while cackling with laughter), she's actually very bold and outspoken inasmuch as possible.

We talked about our New Year's fun, and while I was telling her about how the Emperor was smiling, she said, "I think it's made smile."

By which she meant, "fake smile," but I understood and that's the whole point of communicating. I told her they all fake their smiles, the American politicians, the British monarchy, everyone. She replied, "European cool, American cool, Japanese not cool."

When we were talking about Tokyo, she said, "Stink," then got on her little electronic dictionary and looked up the word "garbage" and said, "Tokyo have garbage stink." She also doesn't think much about Osaka's smell, either.

And the whole time she's cracking herself up. She also apologized at the end of class for not having studied at all during her vacation. I told her not to worry about it because I didn't study Japanese during mine.

My kids' classes are the same and they all seemed happy to see me. The two boys I teach on Mondays are like a manzai team, but with no straight man... unless it's me. The joke's always on sensei. But every class is like their first.

Identical question each week: "How was school today?"

Identical response each week: "Huh?"

Tuesday, I taught the Wonder Twins. Fortunately they were in good humor this week. Usually, it's one good, one evil. Not that they ever act up; they're phenomenally well-behaved. It's just they have mercurial moodiness and you rarely get two happy twins, just one genki and one subdued. This week, they could not stop giggling and hitting each other. They received the new Wii game system for New Year's... maybe that's why they're both feeling good.

The Wednesday junior high girls were the same as usual, polite and hardworking. They're at the point where we can have conversations. While discussing New Year's, I said "koshitoshisoba" instead of "toshikoshisoba," which was probably the highlight of the class where they got to correct the teacher.

The two little girls Thursday made it difficult to stay focused with all their laughing and jumping under the table. Hopefully, today's class will continue the good feelings.

Last night I taught a level 1 student, a nice guy who's into motorcycles. After class, I heard him tell my boss, "Muzukashii desu." Which means, "It was difficult." My boss, Mr. A told him something about "nihonjin," which means, "Japanese."

Hopefully it was something like, "Japanese people always lack confidence when learning English," rather than something like, "Your teacher is an idiot who doesn't know how to teach Japanese people."

We're at the point where my bosses and the students probably should be careful what they say in front of me, even when they're speaking Japanese. I'm slowly beginning to understand bits and pieces. I don't know if they do this, and it's something I wouldn't do and feel uncomfortable about when gaijin do it with me in English, but sometimes when you use your native language around people who you think don't understand it, you let slip little candid comments better left unsaid.

And certainly better left uncomprehended.

Actually, the guy did very well in the lesson; like most beginner students and many advanced learners, he lacks confidence. The topic was introducing yourself, which he could already do. I gave him some follow-up questions to create a natural first meeting conversation, just simple things like, "What do you do?" and "What do you do for fun?"

Otherwise, a conversation would be like this:

Person 1: I am John. Nice to meet you.
Person 2: Nice to meet you too.
(They stare at each other for the rest of the day without speaking)

Here's what we practiced:

Person 1: Hi, my name is John.
Person 2: My name is Taro. Nice to meet you.
Person 1: Nice to meet you, too. Where are you from?
Person 1: I'm from America. How about you?
Person 2: I'm from Japan. What do you do?
Person 1: I'm an English teacher. And you?
Person 2: I'm an office worker.
Person 1: What do you do for fun?
Person 2: I like to ride motorcycles. And you?
Person 1: I like watching movies and playing baseball.

The end. Not the deepest, most natural conversation. Quentin Tarantino would never write this dialogue in one of his movies... or maybe he would, with about 50 f-bombs thrown in. But it's not a good idea to throw too much language at a shaky student at the start. Otherwise, you'll overwhelm them and they'll think, "Holy crap, English is even tougher than I thought!"

Instead, we'll practice this until the student is able to at least meet people with a level of confidence.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Samui Desu Ne?

That means, "It's cold, isn't it?" or "Cold, huh?" Or, even more roughly, "Cold enough for ya?" And the answer is, "Yes it is."

We were supposed to have ice and snow last night, but instead we had clouds and stars on and off. But the prediction about winds was accurate- 50 mph gusts rattling my windows all night and making me glad I was warm and toasty inside on my futon with the tv going.

Today it rained in the morning, but those same strong winds blew the clouds to China or Guam or somewhere by the early afternoon, so instead we had a cold, sunny day here in Hamamatsu. I went out around 4pm and ate an early dinner at Ohgiya, the usual: yakitori, chicken skin, french fries and grilled squid. Plus two Cokes.

The hostess there is very cute. She has an adorably elfin face and when she smiles, her eyes become two thin dark lines like a cartoon character's eyes, or slivers of dark construction paper. I'm curious about her age, though. She's one of those people who could be anywhere from 20 to 40, and will remain unaged for years and years; like myself, for example. My guess is she's in her mid-20s.

I remember one incident late last year where I bicycled by Ohgiya one day after work, just as night was coming on and the lights and lanterns along the street as well and I saw her and this guy who I assume was her boyfriend, both standing on the corner. She was in her work clothes: burgundy Ohgiya t-shirt and a matching band tied in a bow in her hair, jeans.

And this guy was quietly reading her the riot act. I'm not sure what it as all about, but she wouldn't meet his gaze, kept looking down at his chest and nodding her head as he laid into her. He never raised his voice enough for me to hear its tone, but the sad look on her face spoke eloquently.

Everytime I see her now I think about that incident. But with me, she always smiles and nods.

After dinner, I tried to catch the #9 bus back to Sanarudai, and that proved to be a difficult task indeed. Funneled by the downtown buildings, the wind was ripping through everyone's clothes at the bus stop. The #9 light was on, but it's also the light for the #9-22, which goes to places far from where I needed to be. And the bus it was signaling was that very #9-22, so I went to Yamaha Music to price guitars, despite having no plan to buy one anytime in either the near or distant future.

And then I missed the #9. I checked the schedule, went to the new bookstore in the Zaza City basement, missed the #9 bus again. But this time it wasn't my fault- it came at some odd time that bore no relationship to any of the listings. I went to Toys-R-Us to kill the 20 minutes until the next bus and maybe see this girl working there who I'm mildly crushing on... and missed yet another #9 bus.

I looked at the schedule and from what I saw, it'd come 6 minutes early. Bizarre. That's one thing about Japan- time tables are usually accurate to within a minute or so, even more accurate if we're talking the JR trains, which leave promptly on schedule or you get a note of apology.

Angry with myself, freezing my ass off, I hiked to the bus roundabout at the station and spent the next 20 minutes watching Japanese tv weather reports for the rest of the world until the #9 bus showed up at the correct time. 20 minutes after that, I was home warming myself with my electric heater.

Negative Feelings About Japan Among Foreigners...

I was thinking over my post on working for Nova while doing some Google-surfing, and I found more helpful information from- guess where- Peter Payne's J-List Side Blog. Peter Payne's blog is a must read if you're interested in what it's like to live in Japan, and this entry is particularly helpful and insightful.

His experience was very different from mine in that he didn't work for one of the eikaiwa (big chain English schools like Nova, Aeon and ECC), but I think we're similar in we both love living in Japan and tend to focus on the positives. My attitude is, if you're going to do nothing but be miserable and complain about Japan... don't come here. Stay home and be miserable there.

His essay had an interesting quote in it: "There is a tendency for JET gaijins to make friends in their own groups, to feed negative feelings about Japan to each other, and to create a mini-society where they try to keep Japanese influence out as much as possible. Makes me want to slap them silly."

I can vouch for this not among JETs, who I hardly had any contact with and who, when I did, seemed pretty cool and interested in their experiences here, but among foreigners in Japan in general. Understand I don't mean everyone, but there is this strange anti-Japanese anger that surfaces in some people when they live here.

My first experience with this was in Toyohashi, working for Nova there. We had these two girls who were the twin hubs of our social wheel there, and both of them were outspokenly racist. One of their favorite topics of conversation was how much they both hated Japan and the Japanese. That was bad enough, but what was even more disgusting was the attitude from the others there, the ones who genuinely liked Japan- they just laughed along with these two girls and said nothing to challenge them.

Along with them was a guy who'd read Dogs and Demons, had his own cynical worldview confirmed by its straw man arguments, and was always running down every little thing about being in Japan. You could hardly talk to the guy without hearing all the many ways Japan was a failing, screwed up society. But judging from the way he also badmouthed the rest of our coworkers when they weren't around, he had some problems beyond mere dissatisfaction with living in Japan.

Having read as much of Dogs and Demons as I could stand, I have to tell you it's the most poisonous one-sided rant about anything I've ever encountered in published form. I won't go into all the bullshit you'll find in it, but I will tell you while many of its points are no doubt accurate, it's willfully ignoring many counter arguments that more than fully refute it in almost its entirety. The movie chapter is especially asinine and inaccurate. A lot of foreigners read this book then snap it shut and on Japan as well, and end up missing out on all the good they could find here if they weren't so smug, cynical and blind.

Later, in Hamamatsu, we had a teacher who I wrote about in my "Straight Scoop on Working for Nova" post. He was a genuinely smart guy, but full of this diffused, unfocused anger that he consequently turned on anything and everything about Japan, most particularly the lower-level Nova students, and frequently, Nova itself.

Now in fairness, I could've cared less about his Nova criticism. I was sure a big company like that, even with its financial problems, could survive his blunt and sometimes hilarious tirades against it. After all, it'd weathered a lot of less clever and less accurate online screeds. On the other hand, his comments about the students were unfair and completely wrong-minded.

What these people had in common was, their constant negativity not only caused them a lot of personal unhappiness, but also wrecked the morale of everyone around them. When others were around them, they were too afraid to challenge them on even their most egregious lapses in logic and self-control. So social gatherings were very uncomfortable for me, and I quit hanging out with them.

I even transferred from Toyohashi to Hamamatsu, only to have the funny-smart-but-still-negative guy get transferred there too because his Trainer couldn't take it anymore.

His days off were some of the most peaceful, relaxing ones at our branch.

If you recognize any of your own tendencies in those descriptions... don't come to Japan. Stay home and bitch about your job there.

Another thing English teachers tend to do is feed off each other's bad attitudes about Japan. Do a Google search for some "Living in Japan" blogs and you'll see what I mean. They recount the same tired anecdotes over and over.

Some of the these complaints are true. Maybe even most of the things.

What's wrong is how they focus solely on those things to the exclusion of all else, and how they become enraged as if it's somehow more wrong for Japan to have the same flaws, or equal flaws, as any other industrialized country, and the perceived flaws we foreigners encounter when West meets East.

They fall into the same trap many people do, which is to assume that only the bad things in life are the real things. They think that constantly harping on problems makes them somehow more insightful or deep, or possessed of a greater understanding of Japan than someone who genuinely enjoys it here and lets the annoyances slide.

But I also promise you that some of their examples- chosen carefully to re-confirm their preconceived notions- are exaggerations or outright lies.

That's one thing I've come to know about even otherwise well-meaning people- they exaggerate and lie. They make themselves out to be the heroes or victims of a lot of self-inflicted drama and never recognize their own hand in creating these problems. Probably don't even realize they're doing this, or maybe they're just excellent at lying to themselves. But lie they do. That's why you really have to be careful about what you accept as true when you hear it from someone, no matter how sincere they sound.

What it boils down to is... you're not at home. You're in Japan, and subject to Japanese mores. Therefore, you're not free to do whatever the hell you want, whenever you want. As a foreigner, you will get a certain leeway about some customs. Also, you will be patronized at times, and you will experience some racism. But on the whole you will have it much better here than minorities do back home, be it in America, Canada, Australia or the UK.

So you have to adapt, learn flexibility. Getting angry at Japan and demanding the whole country bend over backwards to please you, or do things the way you're used to back home is only going to offend your Japanese hosts and make you miserable.

The only thing you have control over is you and your attitude. Should you be happy about every little thing that happens to you? No, that's stupid. But it's also stupid to blow them all out of proportion, or to believe whatever negative story you're told without confirming it for yourself independently, or somehow thinking Japan is worse than any other country when actually, it's better than most. Especially these days.

Japan is Japan. While many things are very alien to what I grew up with, if people here are like people anywhere in any particular way, it's they do things the ways that make sense to themselves, or how they've been taught, without really giving it much thought. That's annoying, yes, wherever you encounter it. But that's human nature. Look at yourself and see how often you've fallen into this trap before you lash out about "the Japanese do this, the Japanese do that!"

So... if you think you're going to have any of these problems, please please please... do NOT come to Japan.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Straight Scoop on Working for Nova...

(Note- this was originally written before Nova's October 27, 2007 bankruptcy. I'm leaving it for historical purposes. Obviously, you don't want to try to work for Nova now!)

So you're thinking about teaching English in Japan. Let me tell you right now- do it. Don't just think about it; do it. If you're lucky enough to have contacts here in Japan, take full advantage of their hospitality. Bring your resume, your school transcript and some copies of it, copies of your diploma, any letters of recommendation you have and some passport-sized photos of yourself.

You'll need money, of course... and lots of it. But if you're determined, you will find a job here. I think you can find a pretty decent one in about a month, maybe less depending on who you talk to and where you look. The outlook is good. So do it.

On the other hand, if you're like me, you don't like to depend too much on the kindness of others. In that case, why not try working for Nova?

And now you're shouting at your computer: "Nova! What the hell you talkin' 'bout, Joel? I've read all about Nova, and no thanks, buddy. That place is a nightmare!"

Not really. It definitely has its drawbacks, as any big company might. Currently, they're not doing so well financially. But a lot of the major complaints you've probably read on the internet are things you should take with a grain of salt. Some of the complainers are... to put it gently... filthy liars and chronic malcontents. And some have legitimate gripes.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
A small branch, probably near a station in a tiny town somewhere.
I was lucky in that I taught in a large branch, but not so large things
got too hectic. I think the worst case would be working in a Jusco
branch with mostly levels 7 and 6 students.

Here's a quick-and-dirty guide from someone who worked for Nova for 17 months, who probably experienced the gamut of good and bad working there. But the big difference between myself and those others is I worked in the private sector in the United States for a while before I came to Japan.

And when I came, I came with a positive attitude. Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed my stint at Nova. I wouldn't do it again... but I'm glad I did it in the first place.

1) Pay. Nova pays about the same as most English schools. The base pay when I worked there was around 250,000 yen per month. You get an extra allowance if you live in one of the cities where the cost of living is higher, plus bonuses for having advanced degrees, or doing oddball shifts. You can also do overttime and rack up some extra yen.

You get severely docked for missed days and coming in late. There were a few teachers at my last branch who were almost to the point of owing Nova money.

But money was rarely a problem for me. After rent, power and cell phone bills, I had more than enough left over to do whatever I wanted. At one point, I had about $4,000 saved up... which I blew in Tokyo and on a trip home.

If you go out drinking a lot... well, your money won't go too far. I knew some teachers who'd spend the last week or so before payday living on 700 yen. I don't know how they did it.

Oh- and be careful what you sign when you quit. I stupidly sent my last two paychecks home and had to borrow money from a friend or I would've starved to death my final month in Japan. Do not let that happen to you!

2) Vacation. A lot of people joke that Nova stands for "No vacation." Inevitably, even the students will repeat that joke back to you. The truth is, Nova's vacation policy is pretty much the same as any American company's. 2 weeks paid vacation per year, plus 8 or so days off over New Year's.

You can also do shift swaps, where you trade off days with other teachers. I don't recommend this, because you'll find out very quickly that you treasure your days off. Your weekend won't be Saturday-Sunday... it'll probably be something weird like Tuesday-Wednesday, because the weekend is a busy time for Nova. So enjoy those days. You'll need them.

If you're straight out of college and used to Spring Breaks and Winter Breaks and Summer Breaks... forget that. If you were working for a private company back home, you'd get the same deal. That's part of being an adult. You no longer get to come and go like the will o' the wisp. Suck it up.

The bad part is, you'll have to work on all the Japanese national holidays, plus Christmas (which is not a holiday here). The national holidays are probably Nova's busiest days, because many of the students are office workers and they want to study English on their days off. Plus, they've paid in advance for something like 600 lessons and need to use them.

Nova never gave me any problems as long as I followed procedures about asking for paid leave. Do it by the book, and you get your time. No worries. Don't do your homework, then you have no one to blame but yourself.

3) Sick leave. Forget it. You can take sick days, but you don't get paid for them. Yes, that sucks. I worked at a newspaper in the States that had the same policy. The problem is, Nova hires a lot of recent college grads and these kids like to get drunk. This leads to begging off work. A lot. My branch had the area record, and just two guys were responsible.

4) Tardiness. Do not be tardy. For any reason... unless it's a medical emergency. In the case of lateness and absences, the Nova staff have to reschedule everything, and apologize to all the students who suddenly have to change their own personal schedules. If you can't be consistently on time... don't work for Nova. I wasn't late once in 17 months.

5) Fraternization. It's against the Nova rules, and it's one of the big sources of discontent. The Osaka Bar Association sent a letter to Nova telling them this is against human rights, but the policy hasn't changed. And the Nova staff will spy on you, because it's their asses if students start complaining about favoritism and sexual harassment.

Simply put, don't date the students. Don't even socialize with them.

However... we both know this is a silly rule, one you should and will break. Teachers date students. I dated students. We invited students to our parties. One student was a regular at our apartment, hanging out and drinking beer. The trick is to be discreet. Don't be an idiot. Most teachers who got caught were really hanging it out there and when they got busted, it was because they were stupid. They have only themselves to blame.

I will say this- there are some guys who take advantage of multiple students. It becomes a contest at some branches to sleep with the most students. Teachers level up, or try to, girls they think are cute. Some really sketchy, sleazy stuff goes down and losers who couldn't score with their own hands if they got them drunk first suddenly turn into Jude Law. People get hurt, and hurt badly.

Japan doesn't need people like this. If that's what you want, stay the hell home.

6) Training. When I started Nova, training consisted of a half-day orientation session in Nagoya (depending on your area, yours may be elsewhere), followed by 3 days of training at my branch. At this time, we were working under the older system, so we discussed grammar a lot. Our trainer eased us into teaching lessons, 10 minutes of one the first day, half of another the second day and finally, a whole lesson on the third. If I'm remembering correctly...

After that came periodic observations and grammar tests. This particular trainer was a hardcore company man, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing because we learned how to teach by the Nova book, and he was very thorough.

By the time I left the company, we had a new teaching method, but training was pretty much the same. I was able to observe some of the trainees and the current lesson plans are pretty easy. I think you could learn in a day.

Later, you'll have opportunities to do CAT training, and once you've cleared probation (3 months), you'll have some follow-up training that covers sales. I think I did one demo lesson my entire 17 months with Nova. The bad part about it is, if your career there follows form, your first demo lesson will come months after your training and you'll have forgotten how to do it. Which will lead to panic and perspiration.

Kid's training is one all-day session, sometimes at your branch, sometimes at a larger, nearby branch. Again, your first kid's class will probably come several weeks or months later, around the time you've completely forgotten what they shoveled into your mind in haste and confusion.

Unless you work at a branch chock-full of kid's classes, in which case they'll throw you into the mix very quickly. This is much preferable to the delayed-action screw job they gave me.

Chibiko is more of the same, but features a lot more singing and acting like an idiot. In practice, however, it can actually be fun.

7) Lessons. You'll teach 1 to 4 students in regular adult classes. Lessons last 40 minutes and the material itself will probably only last 20 or so if you plow right through it. Do not do this. Pay close attention to the helpful timing charts on the lesson plan and learn to draw things out.

When I started, we had a lot of out-of-date books. The intervals between lessons varied, too. Sometimes, depending on who had the student files you needed, you'd have about 3 minutes to read 4 students' records, choose a lesson, figure out a grammar point, write a dialogue and come up with at least 3 drills for students to attempt.

Now you have 15 minutes between lessons. Check the schedule and see if your students are in a class with another teacher before you start going crazy looking for their files. But even if your other teachers are chatty file-hogs who spend an extra 10 minutes after the bell running their mouths, you should have enough time to find a lesson even if you have a full class.

Most days, you'll have your lesson picked and all your files with 10 minutes to spare. Some trainers or titled teachers (or whatever they're called these days) are laid back and will let you clown around and converse during the left-over time. If not, dawdle and pretend you're still choosing a lesson and take the time to collect your thoughts and relax mentally.

On a typical day, you'll teach 8 classes, but depending on your branch, one or two of those may be super-easy Voice classes (you go to the Voice Room, a sort of lounge where you act as referee while the students talk), or maybe a kid's class or two. Sometimes you'll have open lessons where no students have booked, or else you'll have a no-show (wait 10 minutes in the classroom before reporting back to the teacher's room, but be prepared to rush back in the event the student actually arrives).

The pre-prepared lesson plans make things easier. But the drawback is, you'll find yourself repeating the same lessons ad infinitum. Some teachers complain this creates a fast-food approach to teaching, or that you're not really teaching. But you'll soon discover the lesson plan is just a basic guide. Mix it up, change the lesson, personalize it. If you're teaching some high school kids something that supposedly relates to working in an office, adapt it to a school setting. Use your imagination. The worst teachers just blandly follow the lesson plan. And the students hate them for it.

A good teacher will work in some new, extemporaneous material. Nova discourages you from doing this at first, until you master the teaching form. After that, you're expected to wing it... as long as you pay attention to the lesson timing. The lesson timing is God. Believe me, you'll wish you had worked on it more the first time you're stuck in a class with a single level 7 student and 20 minutes to go before the chimes end this self-created hell.

You'll be expected to be "on" a lot. If you're not naturally perky, learn to fake it. Students want to have a happy, genki teacher. Smile a lot, do not yawn, keep your talking time to a bare minimum and get the students talking.

Sometimes they won't. In that case, you just have to be patient. I cannot stress enough how stupid it is to get angry at students. Learn to be forgiving, develop a love for humanity. It will help a lot.

8) Help Shifts. A help shift is a funny creature. When some teacher takes a vacation or falls ill, Nova fills the spot by shifting a teacher from his or her home branch. So at some point, one of the Japanese staff will give you a help shift form to sign and act like you're doing them a huge favor by agreeing to go to another school and help out. They're really happy (usually) when you sign. Except... you really don't have a choice.

Sometimes it's a nice change. I decided to transfer to the school where I did some help shifts because the teachers there were cooler and more fun. You'll also get to see a little of the countryside. Sometimes, it's a hassle. You have to get up earlier than usual, catch the right train and possibly even a bus, you may end up teaching 3 Kid's Classes in a row or something horrific like that.

9) Kid's Classes. Speaking of kids... you will have to teach kids. The guy who interviewed me in Atlanta promised I wouldn't, but our Area Manager told me it wasn't optional. I hated Kid's training. Your trainer will make you do silly things like hold hands with the other teachers and you'll role-play being children. Yikes. But the classes themselves are easier now under the new program with the lesson plans and whatnot... but not as fun.

And it's actually fun to teach kids. It's tiring and not so enjoyable if you have too many in one day. You'll long for even low-level students for conversation and envy the teacher in the Voice Room who's actually talking to people. But your kids will be cute, funny (if you're lucky) and you'll come to like them a lot.

Juniors and Seniors were the most entertaining for me. Kinders... not so much, although some of them were great. Chibiko, which was fairly new when I worked there, seemed like a devious plan made specifically to torture me... until I taught a few classes. Then it actually became fun. Except for the time this one adorable little girl banged her head against the wall, then fell onto a table we'd stupidly left in the classroom, knocking her head once again.

I still cringe when I think about that.

I do have to warn you- there are some discipline problems in Kid's classes. You're not allowed to speak Japanese to the kids (although some smarter teachers do), or take much action at all if the kids get too rowdy. I even had a child spit in my face, at which point I left the class and dared Nova to do anything to me about it.

I also told them I'd never teach that class again, and waited for the hammer to fall. It never did. Our Area Manager at the time was surprisingly sympathetic.

But don't let that put you off. For the most part the kids are great.

10) Students. The best part of the job. I've read blogs and essays about flaky students, and yeah, I encountered some mental cases. We had one guy who would barely talk at all; all he wanted to do was show you shashinshu of his favorite band. Classes with him could be torture.

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I don't know these people, because I stole these photos off someone's
site. But these are typical Nova students. Just nice, decent people.
This group look like they make classes fun. Hardly a day goes by that
I don't miss students I got to know. They can break your heart, in a
good way.

But most of the students were awesome people, as yours will be. They want to learn English, to have fun, to speak their minds in ways they can't with other Japanese. I could never understand the rage some Nova teachers experienced towards them. One highly intelligent teacher would come back to the teacher's room calling all the students "slapdicks" and complaining about how they couldn't speak English.

I think he misunderstood the job requirements.

You have to stay positive, imagine how you'd feel in similar circumstances (a little empathy is most helpful while working for Nova) and accept people for who they are. Be patient. Most of the students mean well. But Japanese culture is different than Western culture. Students are terrified to make mistakes, or are very shy. Speaking terrible Japanese is fun for you and me, but for Japanese learners, using their English sometimes feels like taking your clothes off in front of strangers.

Students do sometimes complain about the lessons. For some reason, even though I never considered myself a particularly good teacher, I managed to go my entire time without a complaint. I can't figure out why, but I even got a couple of compliments. Nova loathes complaints. Nova loves compliments.

Common causes for students' complaints are: yawning, talking too much, not making any sense, being smelly, being sloppily dressed, appearing indifferent, laughing at the students, insulting the students (sometimes inadvertantly), and in one miraculous case I witnessed- attempting to give a student a personal phone number.

That's right- one particularly dense teacher I worked with took some time out of his lesson to write his cellphone number down on a slip of paper, and placed it on the table.

The students gaped. What was this idiot doing, they wondered. No one moved to take the slip, so the teacher slid it across the table to the girl he thought was the cuter of the two.

They both complained. He got into trouble. Don't do idiotic things like this.

If you're like me, and in this I can understand where the guy was coming from, you will develop crushes on certain students. I fell in love once a month. Only I was careful about it. Consequently, other than one incident where a girl somehow decided to pursue me hellbent for leather, I emerged unscathed and so did the students.

11) Teachers. Your coworkers. You'll meet Aussies, Kiwis, Limeys, Scots, Canucks and Yanks. If you're American, be prepared for some resentment. I had to put up with a few comments here and there that were very prejudiced and rude. And there was a severely anti-Japanese racist contingent at my first branch. Plus some oily sleazos here and there.

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I don't know these people, either. But this is what a Nova teacher's
room looks like, and those are Nova teachers in their natural habitat,
a cramped, boring environment that sometimes feels like a refuge
and sometimes like a cell in an insane asylum. And not one of our
modern, streamlined ones, but one of those murky Victorian insane
asylums where they torture people and rats proliferate.

But... most of the teachers are fine, wonderful people. I knew a lot of teachers I thought the world of. And if you want to extend that ol' collegiate feel of the instant best friend, Nova is a great place to do that. If you're in your early 20s, like to drink and socialize, you'll fit right in. You may get to do some amazing things, like visit China and Thailand with a happy bunch of young funlovers.

Still, you have to live with them. And probably socialize with them. At Nova, you're sort of caught in a bubble of Nova-dom. If that doesn't bother you, then you'll love it.

12) Living conditions. More than likely, you'll share a halfway decent apartment with two other teachers. Be warned- Nova makes money off your rent, which they deduct from your paycheck. Nova acts as a middleperson, taking your money and paying it to a landlord. They take more from you than they pay him.

If you're lucky, you'll have a couple of compatible roommates. I wasn't so fortunate. My first apartment had a young, goodlooking dude from Manchester, UK, who was popular with the ladies and knew it which caused no end of drama and headaches for me as his nearest neighbor. Plus a non-entity from Texas who was the dullest, most inconsiderate and sexist human being I've ever encountered.

There was too much gossip and backstabbing going on, too. As soon as you'd leave the izakaya, out would come the cellphones and people would be reporting every little thing you said to everyone else. Not only that, it was clique-y to the extreme.

I got the hell out as soon as I could.

After I transferred, I had two cool guys I liked a lot. One had a steady girlfriend and was very responsible, and the other was a party animal with great sense of humor. He was drunk most nights, and our apartment was the clubhouse for all the Nova drinking buddies. But they were all fun people with likable personalities, so it wasn't so bad. I actually came to enjoy it.

After those two guys left, I got another young, popular-with-the-ladies guy who kept it to himself and caused no problems, and a crude drunk with whom I shared a mutual dislike almost immediately. At that point, I'd had enough Nova.

13) Japanese Staff. They work harder than you do. And as much pressure as you feel you're under, they're under more. They come earlier and stay later for lower pay. They bear the brunt of not only their mistakes, but your screw ups as well.

Most of the staff I worked with were wonderful, and fun. You can freely date them, although it can cause problems. Just use common sense. But understand this- no matter how friendly they are with you, they don't really trust you. They've been burned by too many irresponsible, callow young dickweeds. So they'll spy on you and report everything to their superiors.

They have to- if it's found out and they didn't report it, once again... it's their asses.

14) Management. The first Area Manager I worked under was an asshole. The next one was better, and the last one was an awesome person who personally called me and told me thank you for all my hard work, and even offered me another job at Nova if I wanted it.

However... if you date students and get caught, get too many complaints from students, miss too many days, complain too much, come in slovenly and unprofessionally dressed, come in late too many times... they will land on you. Hard, with both feet.

At my first branch, we had one young guy, a part-timer. Super nice guy, just very young. For some reason, he just could not show up on time for his 5:40 class. He was late once or twice a week, and this went on for a month. Finally, they told him he didn't have to leave Japan, but he did have to get the hell out of Nova.

I know of one other guy who got fired. He only lasted 2 weeks, and he became a legend, and yet I knew him when he was but a mere trainee. He stole alcohol from his roomies (my exes, the jackass ones), walked 3 hours home from the one day he actually worked because he couldn't find the train station and was somehow too stupid to ask someone, got into a fistfight with his immediate supervisor at his welcome party, came late to his first day of work, then didn't show up at all for the next two.

The Assistant Area Manager and one of the trainers went to his apartment and told him to get out. At that point... he had no money left. For all I know, he's still here, homeless under the big railroad bridge in Kawasaki, where the destitute have built a tent city.

The lesson here is, if you screw up enough, you can end up tranferred to the sticks, or working an ungodly number of help shifts, but actual firings are rare. If this stuff happens, more than likely, it's your fault. Read some of the horror stories online and I absolutely guarantee you you're only getting half the story, if even that much.

15) Levels. Nova has this funky level system. It starts with the 7s. 7C is the bottom rung... these students are raw beginners; some may have never even attempted to study English before. 7Bs have a bit more vocabulary and can introduce themselves, and 7As can actually be interesting and creative at times. 6 is the hardest level to exit, and a lot of students get stuck here and lose confidence. 5 is, according to Nova's CAT standards, the base level where you can be considered a speaker of a language; at this level, the students begin to show personality and you can get to know them as people. 4 is another very difficult level, and 3 is very fluent.

You may never teach a 2. I can't remember if I ever had that opportunity. A 2 is probably better at English than a lot of people you knew back home. I'm from Georgia, so this is definitely true.

And you, my friend, are a level 1. Native speaker level. Are there any level 1s in Nova? Maybe in Tokyo. There were rumors... rumors... that some of them were into field hockey players.

Students live to level up. But be careful- some teachers who give the level up tests are stricter than others. So get a real feel for the CAT requirements and assume the worst before you start signing the level up slips. It costs a student a lot of money, and failure can destroy them entirely.

One teacher at my branch gave out a bunch of level slips to students before his last day, mainly the cute girls. And most of them failed. They had to take the test from our Block Trainer, who was a well-known hardass as far as the Nova requirements went. The Block Trainer took the blame from the other teachers... but it wasn't his fault.

He was doing his job the way he was supposed to. The glad-handing teacher was to blame, and believe me, these students were hurt by his grandstanding. He was expert at doing things to make himself look cool as long as these actions cost him nothing... and they cost others too much.

Don't reward students for being cute or sleeping with you, because it can come back and bite you on the ass and really ruin their lives. Make damn sure they are already fulfilling the requirements for the next level before you put that slip in the folder.

In other words, treat them like human beings.

16) Japan. It's awesome, baby. It really is. Things are a little more expensive than back home, but not ridiculously so. The people are overwhelmingly nice. I've read a lot of negative crap about Japan online, and make no mistake- there are some negatives here. They're not as culturally sensitive as you might like, dealing with banks and some private companies can be a hassle, people are generally sticklers for doing things the Japanese way which may or may not make sense to your delicate Western sensibilities.

The important thing is to put aside what you're used to. The way they do things back home isn't necessarily the correct way. Neither is the way things are done here. They're just different. It's pointless to complain or get angry about it all.

If that's what you're planning on doing... then by all means, stay the hell home.

But if you come with a positive attitude, ready for adventure and the joy of discovery, you will fall in love. Let Japan wrap you in its loving arms. Go to Tokyo, or Osaka. Climb Mt. Fuji. I've done some amazing things I never thought I'd have the chance to do, and I'm still not finished.

That's all I can think of now. Hopefully, this will help you. Read it over carefully, weigh the positives with the negatives, understand that a lot of this is based on my own peculiarities. But if you've been dreaming about it, then get off your lazy ass and get a job teaching English in Japan.

You'll love it. I promise.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

New Year's in Tokyo 2006/07

These are times I wish I had a digital camera, or a scanner. I bought 4 disposable 27-shot cameras and shot up the place while I was in Tokyo, but for now I have no way to show you all the cool things I saw.

The trip started with a bus ride to the Hamamatsu Station, then a shinkansen ride to Shinagawa. A heavy-set guy sat next to me and an elderly woman handed out cacao-flavored chocolate to all of us sitting near her. I think most of them were her family, but my seat buddy made sure I got a piece, too.

Cacao is very popular these days, adding a bite of bitterness to various chocolate products. I sometimes eat a 72% cacao dark chocolate bar from Galba, but they also offer a 93% variety. That might be a little too intense for me.

After Shinagawa, I took the Yamanote Line train to Shinjuku. The Yamanote Line is a big loop around Tokyo that hits most of the main destinations: Tokyo, Ebisu, Shibuya, Harajuku, Yoyogi, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Akihabara.

From the South East exit at the station, I had a 15-minute walk. Luckily, my suitcase was pretty light. And after a couple of wrong turns, I found Hotel Listel Shinjuku. It's right off Yasukuni-Dori, but it's down a side-alley and easy to miss... unless you know exactly where you're going. Once you're oriented, it becomes surprisingly easy. After I found it, I felt pretty stupid for missing it. My hand-drawn map wasn't much help.

I recommend you print out the map on the Listel homepage. It's perfect, as I can now verify.

Hotel Listel Shinjuku is a nice place. I was surprised to find a hotel like that in such a cozy little neighborhood. As I approached it, I was afraid it would be a dump but once I was inside, no problems. Clean and classy, with a friendly staff (although they had my name as "Joel Pobar" for some unknown reason) and my room was spotless as well.

I had a small deluxe single room, with heavy wooden screens over the windows for almost total darkness at night... which is something of a luxury in Shinjuku. Of course, I wasn't in Kabuki-cho, the neon heart of Shinjuku. So despite having quite a few guests, the place was very quiet at night and I had no trouble sleeping.

The only drawback is the walk. When I stay there again, I plan on using the subway.

The first night, I explored the south side of Shinjuku Station where I'd read there was a huge bookstore called Kinokinuya with a selection of English language books. Sure enough, just behind the Takashimaya Times Square, there it was. I bought a few things, then went to a KFC for dinner.

The next day, I enjoyed the complimentary breakfast down at Hotel Listel's Femmenette Restaurant. The place was busy, with every table occupied by a chatty, happy bunch of guests. The two women to my right were Chinese, and I also heard some English mixed in with the other languages.

Then I went to Shibuya. The stations were crowded, the streets were thronged. It was pretty exciting. But to my disappointment, I found one of my favorite stores, American Comics Specialties, was defunct, just an empty building covered with a mesh tarp and a sign that promised a new clothing boutique opening in 2007. Fortunately, even though the rest of the world's Tower Records are going out of business, the Japanese Tower company separated from the parent corporation years back, so the world's largest Tower Records is still open and packed with customers.

New Year's Day was a little downbeat. A lot of restaurants and shops were closed. The sidewalks were still packed, though. Many people were carrying arrows... I'm not sure what they symbolize. New Year's is a family holiday in Japan, and closer in feeling to the Western Christmas. Most of these people had been to shrines to pray and ask for good fortune in the coming year.

I spent most of the afternoon exploring Akihabara, which was formerly the Electronics Capital of Japan, so much so that the English signage in the station still directs you to the "Electric Town Exit." Akihabara is undergoing a change... it's still geek-central, only now it's for the otaku, the Akiba-kei, with manga and toy shops, plus maid cafes.

I have severely mixed feelings about maid cafes. These are places where you go to drink coffee or have a meal and you're served by ultra-cute girls in sexy Gothic-style maid costumes, straight off the pages of the hentai (pervo) manga that's super-popular here. Japan in some ways is a very sexist country, with attitudes roughly akin to 1950s America... or current day Albany, Georgia. I saw a few admittedly adorable-looking young women handing out flyers while dressed as maids or catgirls, but I didn't partake.

Maybe next time I go to Tokyo, I'll check one out from curiosity, but as I've told a few students whenever the topic comes up, treating women like dolls isn't my thing. Without being too judgemental of this aspect of Japanese pop culture, I find it... well... creepy.

I went to AsoBit City, a tower of anime/manga/toy nerdishness that's spectacular in its overwhelming abundance. Everything from coin machine toys (another popular item in modern Japanese culture) to cosplay items, plus Momoko dolls, Star Wars action figures and Disneyana.

Overall, Akihabara was kind of a disappointment, but only because I didn't do my research beforehand. I was expecting more toy and hobby shops. The electronics places are still going strong, but you're not likely to find any super-bargains. Things are pretty much the same price there as anywhere. I think its reputation was made back in the days when Japanese electronics were much cheaper than Western goods.

Hey, I remember when I was a kid, "Made in Japan" was a synonym for cheap and junky. Now that Toyota has surpassed General Motors and I'm using a Toshiba laptop, "Made in Japan" means "high quality, reliable stuff." Better than American, jack.

Next time, I'll do a little more research. I'm sure I missed some of the craziest nerd stuff.

January 2nd was pretty exciting, though. The Imperial family make regularly scheduled appearances at the Palace in Tokyo proper. I was a little nervous about finding the Palace, but it was easy.

Not only that, Tokyo Station is beautiful from the outside. I'm not sure what kind of architecture it is, or what era it represents (because I can't imagine anything like this survived the war), but it's old fashioned, red brick and charming. Incredibly, this quaint station is surrounded by ultra-modern glass and steel skyscrapers that look like the cyber-future out of one of William Gibson's novels. And a 10-minute walk, you're on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. It's like simultaneously existing in three different eras.

You enter what's like a vast park, surrounded by a moat with still, green water in it, complete with placidly swimming ducks. There are these massive dark stone walls; I'm guessing those are pretty old. The original palace burned down during the mid-1940s for some mysterious reason, and the new one was built shortly afterward.

But to actually get to the palace requires some hiking. And since the Emperor was making his New Year's appearances, security was heavy. Uniformed cops and plainclothesmen stood around, inspecting everyone visually, while a helicopter orbited high overhead. There were also police vans with baskets on top from which still more police gave orders through loudspeakers.

I got frisked by a Tokyo cop on my way in, as did millions of others that day. At that point, I was also carrying a small Japanese flag made of paper.

Across the wide gravel lots we all trudged, this long snaking line of pilgrims, up through the gate and over a bridge. There were small, twisty pine trees all around. If I looked straight ahead, it was like being in Edo Period Japan, but if I turned around there were the skyscrapers jutting out over the pines under a gray sky.

I packed myself in with all the others under the viewing terrace and waited until my feet ached. When the Emperor and his family, appeared, the flags came up and patriotic cheers resounded across the courtyard.

It was thrilling. One guy would shout something, then a group would join him in raising their arms and screaming, "Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!" You could hear groups cheering this way throughout the crowd. As I know from many college football games where a certain level of shared hysteria reigns, it's hard not to get swept up into the emotions of a mass group... even if you're not part of the culture. I waved my flag and took as many photos as I could, and just drank it all in.

The Emperor made a very short speech, telling us in Japanese that he was very happy to celebrate the New Year with us, with a wish for world peace, and he and his family members waved.

I'd never seen royalty before, and this man's family can trace its roots back at least 1500 years, which puts any European monarch to shame. At 73, he's not very physically impressive. Mainly, he radiates a kind of warmth and friendliness. Small framed, extremely neat, with silver hair. But he kept a big, sincere smile on his face as he waved, and he wore one of those statesman/diplomat style tuxedos with the gray waistcoat and tails, so he looked very much like a modern monarch. Expectations fulfilled, I suppose.

Then I went back to Shibuya and had an early dinner at Outback Steakhouse. They were very busy and very confused but once again, I have to say this was one of the best experiences I've ever had at a steakhouse... equalled only by my other visits to this Outback.

Many on the staff speak English, and they're very friendly. And, in an oddity for Japan, you get free refills on soft drinks. The meals there are a bit pricey, but not too bad when you consider you're in Japan. I had a medium (slightly undercooked) slab of sirloin, a baked potato smothered in melting butter and some mixed veggies, plus a salad. Mmm... I wish I were eating that steak right now.

Then I went back to Shinjuku and hit the Tower Records at the station.

I had to get up early Wednesday because check out was at 10am. A girl's high school sports team were checking in. Lots of boyish haircuts and red-and-white nylon windsuits. My guess is they were a gymnastics team.

My suitcase was considerably heavier by now, but I had no trouble at all until I got to the station. Here's a tip- the coin lockers there only take 100 yen coins. My 500-yen pieces were useless, and by the time I got change, someone had taken the last available large locker.

I took the Yamanote Line to Tokyo. My main plan was to find a locker to dump my suitcase in, then head back to Shibuya for some final shopping and the buffet lunch at Shakey's Pizza. But my alternate plan in case I couldn't find an available locker was just to forget it all and head back to Hamamatsu. Luckily, plan A came to fruition.

Except for the Shakey's Pizza part. That was another disappointment for me... the line was out the door. Well, it was lunchtime. I ended up at the Wendy's nearby, eating some kind of teriyaki burger. Not bad, and the fries were freshly cooked.

And Shibuya was hopping. On the spur of the moment, I decided to buy yet another disposable camera and get some crowd shots. Wait until you see these... I don't think I've ever seen this many people who weren't going to a sports event.

I bought a few books, some cd's, then went briefly back to Shinjuku to go to the Kinokuniya to get this Kuriyama Chiaki shashinshu (photobook) I wanted 2 years ago but never got around to buying. I don't expect to see it anywhere again because the shelf-life on these things can be very short. It's pretty cool little book, some very artistic and funky/freaky shots of Chiaki dressed like various princesses from legend and fairy tales including Cinderella, the Moon Princess and the Little Mermaid.

After that, a short Chuo Line trip back to Tokyo Station, then a reserved seat on the 16:06 Hikari 419 back to Hamamatsu.

And that was New Year's in Tokyo.