Sunday, 25 August 2019

Japanese culture and English grammar aren't so different -- wait, what?

Humour me a moment.

Did you know that the Japanese language doesn't come with an assortment of punctuation tools? Well, not technically. You’ll sometimes get a period, sometimes a comma, but even so the rules for their use aren’t nearly as strict as they are in English. Generally, so long as your sentence is structured in a way that makes sense, you can pretty much slot in words and phrases however you please. If only English were the same way.

But Japanese people don't get off so easy. For one, there's kanji. But kanji aside, they're forced to contend with other, much stricter affairs within their culture to worry about the minutiae of punctuating a sentence. Take manners. Japanese people are very good at manners, probably because they’ve been around longer than the very first roots of the English language. It’s no wonder they find their way into everything, from addressing others, giving and receiving gifts, bowing, bathing, eating, visiting someone’s house, using chopsticks, purchasing or selling goods, and so on. The list is endless. Japanese culture is so densely threaded by rules on how-to-do-x that, like bread without yeast, a rabbit without ears, or, hmm, a fly without wings? (which obviously would be called a ‘walk’), without them, the culture would be impossible to recognise.

Japan never shies away from making known its priorities. (Stolen from Reddit)

Such as it is, Japanese people are wired for manners; they’re never not thinking of what common courtesy they’ve failed to execute, could improve on for next time, or whether the bow they just executed was ten degrees too much. Even if they’ve given up on life and refuse to show courtesy to anyone, they’ve done so knowing what they’ve forsaken. They’ve given up on purpose. “Social rules, smocial schmules,” they say at supermarkets as they single-handedly throw their money straight onto the cashier’s table and not even into the tray. Blasphemy!

New Zealand, on the other hand, has only the bare minimum of social rules necessary in order to function: smile, try to be pleasant, and everyone will think the world of you. And in a host of situations where Japan may have implemented a courtesy or two, New Zealand simply hasn’t bothered (nor, really, had the time).

Take, for example, road construction. In New Zealand, upon entering a road construction zone, you’ll quickly see some notable placements that mark it as such: cones, arrows and signs, to name a few. The signs will say things like: “Road Works Ahead”, “30km/h temporary”, and “Slow Down”. And at the end signs like “Works End” (with or without a “thank you”) will see you off. All in all, they’re brief and to-the-point.

In cases where a lane has been cut-off so that all the cars must share a lane, there may be a man with his own sign on which one side (green) reads “Go” and the other (red) “Stop”. This leaves little to no room for confusion. When he turns it to red, you stop, and when he turns it to green, you go. Clockwork.

In Japan, road construction attempts to be clockwork but fails. There are of course the helpful numbers that tell you to what speed you should slow down. There are also prefecture mascots painted and/or stuck onto the sides of cones (such as an adorable cat named Shimaneko), whose cuteness makes you feel a little bit better about being inconvenienced. But numbers and cute cats are where the novelties end and the confusion begins.

If the construction zone is staffed, you can bet there will be far more staff than the number of jobs available to them. Perhaps three of them will be stationed fifty metres from each other, each equipped with a white flag and a red flag. Now, supposedly the white one means “go” and the red one means “stop”, but they don’t simply raise one and lower the other at the appropriate times. Rather, they make nonstop sweeping, broad gestures with their whole body, which, due to the nature of flags in wind, makes it rather difficult to know which of the two flags is being brandished and what exactly the given gesture (there are several) means.

One simply must copy what the car in front is doing, or, if there is no car, commit to either slowing down or maintaining the current speed while keeping one’s eyes locked on the flag-bearer, looking out for “changes in gesture”. Even Japanese friends have joked (while being completely serious) that they have no idea what the road men want from them are trying so hard to communicate.

Another reason this remains tricky for even the Japanese is that sometimes the flag-bearer doesn’t have flags but batons, and apparently the batons (which are both orange) come with a different list of gestures than the flags. At other times there are neither flags nor batons, and the stop/go man in question must simply improvise with the limbs God gave him. Come to think of it, it’s almost as if these guiding implements (flags, batons, neither) are the remnants of antiquated combat forms, each with their own sets and subsets of techniques. That would be cool, if only they translated to traffic guidance...

From my various encounters with the men wielding the weapons, I’ve inferred that there are indeed rules on how to guide people, but that many of these men never studied them properly. Perhaps this refusal to study is why there are a lot of unstaffed construction zones nowadays, where instead of a real man gesturing profusely, a digital man will be gesturing profusely instead. It’s something you have to see for yourself. It’s not enough to say “THANKS” in block letters; they have screens set up to depict, in low-frame-count-repetition, generic Japanese road men sweeping their flags low, bowing, and sometimes tipping their hats. But, hey, it’s quirky, like the cats, and it’s true that I find myself suddenly OK with being inconvenienced for the following 60-180 seconds.

Or perhaps there’s nothing to study; these men are supposed to be engineers after all, not traffic guides, and all that gesturing really comes down to is intuition. 

Also, this isn't irony; it's a coincidence. Irony is a poacher being stampeded, or the Japanese teacher being better at English than the ALT. Yikes. But we're talking about punctuation, not definition. This is a topic for another day. (Borrowed form

New Zealand doesn’t share any of the fancy etiquette of Japan, so is less liable to making people confused. But our easy-bake culture is a trade-off for the language we’ve chosen to speak, thanks in part to all the stops and slow-downs that this language imposes, named, in a word, punctuation. English punctuation makes many, many of us confused, and by ‘us’ I mean native speakers.

Like Japanese road men, we didn’t study the tools we’re meant to be using; we just got given them and know that they serve a function somewhere, sometimes. Such as that semi-colon in the previous sentence, and that hyphen between 'semi' and 'colon' (which doesn’t actually need to be there), and the commas that are keeping this sentence from hitting the brakes and coming to a halt - or as we Kiwis say, a full stop.

Actually, we’re pretty good with full stops. If you know what a sentence is and isn’t, then you probably know when to use a full stop or any of its variants (question marks and exclamation marks). But with the others, we kind of just do what “feels good”. (Ahh, how I do empathise with the road men…)

Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, writes that truly good punctuation leads the way without drawing attention to itself. In other words, not like Japanese road men.

Commas are among the most popular items that we fail to tuck away properly. They have so many functions, aren’t optional like semicolons or (sometimes) hyphens, and, when typing, they’re always in easy reach of the right index finger. They’re, shall we say, too convenient, like the sides of your trousers after you’ve washed your hands and there’s no towel in easy reach. “Trousers are for wearing, not drying!” your Japanese colleagues will tell you. Everyone in Japan carries a hand towel in their back pockets, you see. Social rules. We westerners misuse trousers daily, and no one in the west tells us off.

Well, commas are like trousers, people.

Check out the following I came upon just this morning. I reckon two different authors wrote these, despite them coming from the same web page, because one has commas and the other doesn’t.

"If you’ve received a registration code in the post enter it on our registration page"

"Print the form, sign it, and return it to us"

Let’s be clear. They both need commas. One author has forgotten this (nary a comma has been inserted), while the other has employed not only the first, necessary comma, but a second completely optional Oxford comma! Totally baffling. And to think this is a government website.

What could be worse than this, you ask? Let me show you a, well, I don't even know what you call them. A re-post? They're the author-less quotes that people share and re-share that, probably because they're author-less, are almost always just... OK, you know?


“A church that will not CONFRONT sin, will eventually end up CONFORMING to sin.”

Someone, anyone, please, tell me what the comma is doing there. The quote sounded almost clever until it forced me to stop halfway through. It was like ripping open a bag of chips and finding out they’re all broken into unwieldy bits. You can hardly call them chips anymore. Ghost chips, maybe.

I understand the issue: the second half of the sentence is, in the author’s mind, a kind of punchline. It needs weight, or at least he thinks it does, because these mid-sentence, wait-for-it pauses (even though there isn't any real suspense anyway) are what young, modern pastors do in their sermons, or what young, modern YouTubers do in their video essays. He wants to do in written form what they always do in spoken form. And in order to get around the issue of having the punchline in the same sentence as everything else, he’s gone and dumped a comma in there.

I could be a stickler and say, “This is not how you use a comma”, and a long time ago I’d have felt justified in doing so. But this kind of response doesn’t mean anything or serve anyone, and over the years I’ve learned that ‘rules writ in stone’ are less important than, like, utility and stuff, yeah? What I’m saying is this: if you can dry your hands on your trousers, go ahead; and if the comma you’re misusing achieves something for the reader, then you should use it in confidence. But the simple fact is that it doesn’t. It adds nothing. Rather, at least for me, it hinders the flow of the sentence and thus the impact of the message it’s trying to convey.

The author has gone to multiple lengths to "maximise readability". He’s capitalised the big C-words to emphasise the cleverness of employing contrasting adjectives that both begin with C (memorable!). He’s used the word ‘sin’ not once, but twice, to make the focal point of his message crystal clear (we’re talking about sin, guys! SIN!).

And he’s… well, he’s stuck a comma in there. Yeah. Ahem.

Punctuation is fun.

I’ve already forgotten what that comma was trying to achieve. Oh, right, emphasis.

It’s all a bit much for such a simple and straightforward sentence, you know? All you needed to tell people was “slow down, road works, thanks”, which the sentence did fine without any of the flourishes. But then you went and added the flourishes. You gestured and bowed and signalled, and then my eyes weren’t on the road but on the person doing the animations (literally speaking, I fixated on the comma). And while the guide books of yesteryear aren’t perfect and there’s always room for rule-breaking and/or experimentation, they’re there for a reason. And while some books differ on what works when (and while opinions do matter), the functions for a comma, while numerous, are actually very tried. You can’t invent a new one and expect it to just fly. The sentence flew just fine on its own.

This goes for the Japanese, too. You can't invent a new gesture - no matter how broad or sweeping - and expect everyone to understand what you're trying to communicate.

Japanese etiquette extends to the way one places their shoes, too (neatness), and everyone's amazing at abiding by this. Fail, and it'll be immediately obvious who isn't from around here.

But Japan is Japan, and I can’t critique it too much. While drivers, daily, are bewildered by the side-of-the-road theatre productions they come upon at road construction zones, car accidents remain very, very few. Likewise, while the comma in the above example does nothing except force me to pause and then pick up again on a ‘will’ (which, honestly, why would you make me do that?), no one is actually sitting there thinking “What in heavens did I just read?”

Japanese people get a lot of flak for failing to show appropriate grace and manners, for breaking just one of a thousand social rules. I sometimes think a bit more hand-towel-brandishing when it comes to terrible grammar usage, too, wouldn't be such a bad thing. But Japan does get to be a bit much, even for me, and every trip back to New Zealand comes with a breath of fresh, clean, green air. I can relax, I can care less, I can use my trousers however I like. That sentence went on too long.

The point is, I understand: be it flags, batons, pens, paint brushes or nothing at all, correcting every single whimsical gesture wouldn’t help anyone; it'd only make us scared to gesture at all.

Which might be bad for the traffic - if the road men did nothing at all.

What am I trying to say, then? Be aware, I guess. Be aware that if you know your forms and techniques, you can move with grace and elegance. You can guide the way with flourishes and tricks that people will scarce be privy to. They’ll arrive at their destination knowing not how they got there.

But if you don’t, you can still guide the way; you’ll just confuse a few people now and then who may have learned something different.

Either way you’ll make mistakes, because punctuation is hard and not everyone understands interpretive dance. Whatever tools you have in hand, be it a road sign or a comma, be aware of the power they have, and then unleash it, with as few, movements, as possible.

Monday, 17 June 2019

The Chase

Ten year-old Genchiro sprinted across the dirt field of the Yusato Urban Development Centre with one goal in mind: to catch me.

It was a Saturday evening, One World Shimane – a yearly JET-organised event for students across the region – was nearing its end, and Genchiro, his friends and I were playing onigoko out on the dirt field adjacent the parking lot. Onigoko is Japanese for ‘pretend devil’, or, in simpler terms, tag. And at the present moment, Genchiro was the devil. He did his best to own the part, too, eyes daring and clever, and a big smile on his face that made him look rather like a cartoon shark, equal parts frightening and ridiculous.

Taiko drums thundered from inside the hall as we darted across the field and back in the dimming twilight, sweat plastered to our skin. We stopped to catch our breaths, darted, stopped, and darted again in a bid to elude the devil, our footprints in the dirt showing a timeline of our successes and failures. When the kids realised that Genchiro had chosen me as his sole target, they stopped to bear witness, eyes wider than ever to compensate for the waning light. I imagine it was like watching a very young cheetah take on an adult gazelle – the size difference was quite apparent. But Genchiro was determined.

The long bridge ('big bridge' in Japanese) connecting mainland Japan to the small island of Tsunoshima. It bears no direct relation to the blog post you're currently reading, but maybe some indirect relation is working its way in there. No?

A part of me worried we were being too noisy for the cluster of houses surrounding the park. It was like a little village, if you can picture it: houses on two sides, the big development centre on the third, a driveway, a parking lot, and in the middle a clearing where eight little runts and a big foreign guy from New Zealand were running away from pretend devils. I’m glad I wore my trainers that day.

Moments earlier I had been a devil, but a combination of cunning and ridiculously long legs had enabled me to catch Hajime; Hajime had tagged Bunta, and Bunta, Genchiro. But Genchiro was different than his compatriots. He wasn’t satisfied with catching someone of like stature. Me, however – he’d only met me for the first time that day, and I’d already proven that I could outrun them. With a hunter’s determination, he’d said to his friends, “I could catch any of you, or…” and he’d turned to me, “I could catch Matthew-san, and level up.”

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll know that one of their favourite words is “ganbatte!” You’ll hear teachers say it to their students, students say it to each other, and just about everyone yelling it at sports events. It literally translates to “Fight!”, but rather means something like “Do your best” or “You’ve got this”, depending on the situation. It’s as commonplace as “How are you?” in English, and so is the response: “hai!” (Yes!) or “ganbarimasu!” (I’ll do my best!).

The idea of challenging oneself is so ingrained in Japanese culture that it’s used just as often in jest, such as last week when I brought Marmite to school and asked everyone to sample it. “Challenge!” said Sasaki Sensei as she picked up a piece of bread smeared with the stuff and shoved it into her mouth. That lady’s a soldier.

And it’s ingrained in Japanese people, too. It’s why Ueda Sensei could stay at work until 10:30pm the Thursday before. After PTA volleyball, which finished at 10, I saw the staffroom lights still on. I peered through the windows and there he was, typing away. “Ganbaru-hi” he’d called it. “Hi” (hee) means day and “ganbaru” means the aforementioned, to hang in there. It was a day of pure perseverence.

It’s why Mr Hori, the principal, said one of the most rewarding experiences in his life was milking cows in New Plymouth as a middle schooler before the sun rose each morning – before going to school each day.

And it’s why people don’t complain about extra work, difficult colleagues, cheeky students, heavy rain, or Mondays. They accept reality; they take ownership; they say “ganbaranakereba narimasen” (I simply have to do my best; I simply have to hang in there), and they press on.

Perhaps I’m blessed to work at schools where vocal complaints are few and far between, and perhaps I surround myself with the right people. Still, in almost three years, I’ve never heard a single complaint about Mondays. People press on no matter the day.

Or the night, as was in Genchiro’s case.

He was a smart little cheetah. He knew the telltale signs of a tiring gazelle. I made light humour through my short breaths as I tried to keep the distance between us. “Hey, Genchiro, it’s fine, seriously. I’ll be OK if you just go for one of the others.” This did halt him momentarily, if only to laugh at my silly Japanese. But then he resumed. I heaved a sigh and pressed on, but I was all out of sprinting power, and Genchiro had thrown off his cheetah disguise to reveal himself as a human bullet. I glimpsed over my shoulder with the dread that a hunted gazelle must experience. I was done for.

I never got a chance to say goodbye to him, but his words about “levelling up” stayed with me. They come to mind whenever a “ganbatte” is given and received, whenever a friend insists on speaking English around me despite knowing that every sentence has at least ten things wrong with it, and whenever a colleague wants to try something new rather than sticking with what’s familiar. 

Japanese people take the Marmite and eat it.

I don’t know if Genchiro levelled up by catching me. I’m not exactly a sprinting legend, after all. One thing’s certain: in a game all about pretending, he was the real thing.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Bowing in Japan: a how-to

In western countries, when you shake hands with someone, and the handshake you receive is weak and uncertain, the mood it gives off is something along the lines of shy or uneasy, lacking confidence and perhaps grace. And sometimes, when there’s no handshake offered at all, the air can get a bit cold.

It’s rather like this in Japan, only you must remove handshakes altogether and replace them with bows.

This view from Matsue Castle has nothing to do with bowing, but I did go to Matsue last weekend to take a Japanese exam. Matsue is the capital city of the Shimane prefecture in which I live. So, in this loose geographical sense, it relates.

As we all know, a good handshake has good grip, and involves a sort of moving-forward of your upper body, as if you’re powering up a punch with your other arm but decide against it last minute and smile amiably and genuinely (with your eyes as well as your mouth) instead. This is a confident handshake. It’s something like a dance move, not that I can dance.

But a good handshake is a bit different to a good bow, because one doesn’t think of bowing in terms of confidence, but respect. And you must be aware of the amount of respect you owe the person you’re bowing to. Certainly reciprocate a bow like you would a handshake, and perhaps bow a little more than the person bowing to you.

And there are other things to consider. There’s age, social rank, and familiarity. In the least, consider whether you’re a customer and they’re a clerk, in which case you wouldn’t be expected to bow back at all. You should bow when thanking someone for a service they did you, and recognise that the depth of your bow is proportional to your gratitude. At least, that’s how it'll be read. Thus more bow is better than less bow. You know, like how smiling at someone and intonating lots when you thank them is better than not smiling much and not intonating at all.

You should keep your back straight if you wish to bow properly, and if you’re bowing more out of respect than out of gratitude (such as if you’re a student and they’re a teacher), you might prop your hands at your sides and tense your whole body, like a Pikachu from behind has electrocuted you and you’re about to collapse! But there’s a twist, see, for you only collapse half your body  that is, you perform your graceful, 90-degree bow in flawless deference.

But students don’t bow like this very often. Only if they’re new to the school, or in baseball uniform (because any shortage of respect will be a stain on the whole team).

Bow when someone opens the door for you, lets you go first, or hands you the wallet you dropped. Though, when I dropped my wallet at a cafe in Tokyo, the opposite happened: the guy in the adjacent table picked it up, handed it to me in two proffered palms and bowed profusely. I thanked him profusely, and then I thanked God for putting that kind man there. On a different occasion, when I picked up a ticket someone dropped and handed it to them, they bowed and thanked me, and I just smiled and said “iie, iie” (not at all). This is also fine.

Of course, as the familiarity increases, the bowing decreases. If a teacher at school drops something, and I pick it up and pass it to them, they might, as they thank me, laugh at their clumsiness, and then feign further clumsiness before continuing the rush to their next class. It’s like any relationship, working or otherwise: when you’re comfortable with each other, you replace formalities with humour. It makes the atmosphere a little more cosy, and life a little more, I don’t know, breathable.

But bowing isn't always so uptight. Take for instance the bowing that occurs from car to car, such as when the road is narrow and you stop to let the wider vehicle through. You’ll get a slow bow, and you should give a slow bow back. The slowness in these latter bows denotes sincerity and gentleness, whereas a rushed bow indicates either impatience or nervousness. So try to take your time with them.

After a casual sports match, face the opposing team, say “arigato gozaimashita” (thank you very much) and bow properly. And if it’s formal, run up to them and shake their hands as well. (This is one of the only occasions in which people shake hands in Japan, and due to the lack of practice, these handshakes are usually weak.)

And either bow or wave (or both) when seeing someone off after having them round for dinner. And bow if you’re the guest, too.

Bowing, unlike a handshake, is an inseparable mix of code and intuition. Sort of like English grammar (teaching when and how to use the word 'the' is quite the nightmare). But it is just one small piece of Japanese culture; and there are countless other pieces. Culture comes forth in promises and patience, in nature, customer service, schedules, tidiness, quietness, slowness of driving, organisation, school cleaning, staying at work late, the lack of complaining, and the instinctive, quickfire decision to ‘fight’ (a better translation: persevere) with every new challenge. And each of these aspects is inseparable from the whole, an intricate tapestry that can be neither dissected nor unravelled.

Japan isn’t merely a peculiar island with busy people, big cities, trains, anime, sushi, theme parks and hilarious game shows. These are just the strokes of make-up on a face. Japan is peculiar in a thousand deeper, more sensual ways. Compared to the west, to New Zealand, it’s an entirely different world. But it’s different in the way two people’s faces are different, despite them having the same parts. You know they’re different, but if you were asked how, and to put that in words, you would struggle to respond. So, I’m also struggling. I can explain bowing, perhaps, but I can’t explain it within the context of everything else. I can’t show it to you amidst the rest of the tapestry. The concept of bowing, on its own, might seem a bit tedious, and the idea of willingly working overtime merely ridiculous. But if you were to come here, to live here, you might see that each aspect makes sense within the broader framework.

For now, all I can say is that a handshake isn’t a bow, and Japan isn’t the rest of the world. To see exactly why, I recommend coming over.

This is Matthew, bowing out.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The one day of the year Gotsu gets crowded

Japanese people like festivals. And I mean really like. The week just passed was called Obon. It’s a yearly, nation-wide custom of honouring one's ancestors, and a large part of this honouring takes the form of festivals. Almost every town has at least one, and the larger cities might have dozens. These involve street entertainment, food stalls, parades, lanterns floating downriver to represent the souls of the deceased, and fireworks. So many fireworks. 

I’m a bit fireworked out, to be honest.

On 364 days of the year, Gotsu is a quiet place. Its population sits at roughly 30,000, but in terms of area its reach is relatively far. So even though Route 9 and the town centre it cuts through aren't entirely devoid of activity, the country roads that take you between mountains and over rice plantations remain as peaceful as the day God spoke nature into being.

But on the 16th of August each year, someone lifts a log, and out from beneath it emerge thousands upon thousands of ants, which congregate in the open. Hearing the commotion, other ant colonies from other logs make their way over, too. Together, these ants hold a festival.

The log is Gotsu, and on Thursday last week I was an ant; the tallest ant, granted, but an ant nonetheless.
Fireworks. Wow!

From about 5:30 in the afternoon, the population in Gotsu’s main square rose from a hundred to 10,000. Stalls selling takoyaki, kebabs, fried chicken, fries, yakisoba, shaved ice, drinks, accessories and more were erected in all the conceivably vacant spots, one stall deploying right up against the next. Locals set up, cooked, and then yelled: “Try this takoyaki, it’s delicious!” My students were among them, some making hot dogs that you could buy for 300 yen a piece, others – a family – selling five flavors of shaved ice. The air became so riddled with the smells of fresh food that if you were entering Gotsu for the first time, you could turn off the GPS and rely entirely on your nose.

But before all this, at the start of the festival, the parading parties all gathered in the town centre to be formally introduced. I lost count of how many groups there were, but they included: representatives from the city hall (pretty much obligated to join) and board of education (including me and some other ALTs), a high school rugby team (whose existence still surprises me), and a rather humble cluster from Sakura co., the pancake café (whose owner was trying to usher some of us to leave our group and join his in an attempt to boost numbers).

It didn’t really matter whose team we were on; we all did the same dance in the end, to the same repetitive song. I say repetitive because we paraded for over half an hour, and Gotsu’s song is a full 45 seconds. Needless to say, by the end of it, we were all ready for the fireworks, which followed.

Everyone – and I mean everyone – sat on the river bank or leaned on the bridge’s guardrails and waited, ate, talked, or watched the countless lanterns float down the river towards the sea – these lanterns being the ancestors’ souls. At 8 o’clock the night had descended, and at 8:10 the fireworks began: a 30-minute display timed to the rhythm of four different musical numbers – plus a few breaks in between to ensure that 30-minute mark was actually reached. This is Gotsu, after all.

Breaks nothwithstanding, watching these fireworks was enjoyable in a satisfying kind of way – like winning Solitaire, only longer and with a good deal more pop.

And after, just as the wind began to pick up, and people I don’t know on either side of me (although some of them I do know, or at least I know their kids) began complaining that it’s cold (which it really wasn't, but the weather can never catch a break with these people, can it?), we all packed up and left.

Leaving is its own ordeal, in the same way getting off a large plane can be an ordeal. You have to wait, and then you have to wait some more. Then finally, just as you’re questioning the tensile strength of your bladder walls, the long line you've been standing in begins to inch its way towards personal space.

One's eyes blink in disbelief at the sight of this station still serving a purpose.
But even after we'd left the river bank, personal space was still a way away. Gotsu Station usually has two people in it, including the ticket office staff. But on this 16th of August day, you wouldn’t have been able to count the number of people lining up there. That poor station; it was about as ready to burst as my bladder. And though I didn’t take the train, getting my car out from the parking lot onto the road was entirely dependent on the courtesy of fellow drivers. 

But ants in a colony work together, so in the end it wasn’t too bad. One by one – and it was a whole lot slower going home and than going out – we crawled back beneath our logs as if nothing had ever happened, and Gotsu returned to its tranquil and unassuming self once more.

But Obon isn’t the only occasion for festivals. There are plenty more, including the one I attended on Sunday. And there's a lot to be said about that one – next time.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

In a couple of years

I’ve been in Japan for 2 years (and something something days); or, as the Japanese would say, “It has become my third year.” This sounds strange in English, but perfectly fine in Japanese. Such is the headache of a direct translation. And as I learn more of the language, I’m having increasing trouble reconciling it with English.

So ends the yearly update on my life in Japan.

Unrelated, I went to Tokyo last week. It was fantastic. It’s about the size of your imagination multiplied by ten. My only regret was not going there for a longer time, or more often in the past.

What were the highlights? If you ran into me on the street and I had about fifteen seconds to answer, I’d list all the obvious things: Tokyo Tower, Meiji Jingu Shrine, shopping, food, the random Pikachu festival that took me unawares, the fact that a Cookie Time café exists in Tokyo but not in New Zealand, and so on. The trains were also fascinating: the jingles that tell you when the next one’s arriving, the arrows that inform you exactly which side of the stairwell you should walk on when going up or down, and the phenomenon of a hundred and ten people crammed into a car yet remaining perfectly silent, staring into their phones.

The Pikachu that took me unawares. Unsurprisingly, Pikachu was far more popular than Eevee, the other star of the festival.

I might list the lowlights, like the heat, or losing my ICOCA card with 3000-ish yen on it – that’s a lot of train rides! But shou ga nai (it can’t be helped). I bought a new card and deigned not to deposit quite so much yen into it. This was smarter.

But a list like this is superficial. It’s like ingredients in a recipe: predictable and almost meaningless.

The actual highlight was when I stumbled upon a Manuka honey store in the Red Brick Warehouse. Manuka honey is produced from bees that pollinate the New Zealand Manuka bush. It's known for its medicinal properties as much as its steep price. In the store, a clerk saw me scrutinising the photos of New Zealand’s countryside (feat. photobombing sheep). My friend told the clerk that I’m from New Zealand. His eyes beamed, he let out a surprised “Hehhh? Sou desu ka?” (What? Really?), whipped out his phone and proceeded to show me pictures from his work trip to New Zealand last year. He told me he loves the place, was surprised by its perfectly straight roads amidst farmlands, and that he enjoyed the six-hour drive from Christchurch to Nelson, where the company has its home base. He said he’s a Star Alliance gold member, loves Air New Zealand and said he’d visit again if only he were able to take annual leave. He told me that if I ever want to live in Tokyo, I’m welcome to work at his store. I said, “great!”

One of the views from Tokyo Tower.
He’s the second person I met that day who’d visited NZ and loved it. The first was a junior high school teacher who quit due to the lack of time off and is now a counsellor for students wanting to study abroad. She said she fell in love with NZ when, while teaching, she went there for a few weeks to work in a small school. Now, even though she’s used to life in Tokyo, she much prefers the town of three thousand residents in which she stayed, the same region where I was born. She’s going there again next month.

It was great to visit this red brick warehouse. The shops there have such bizarre and fascinating things, like pieces of fake bread to stick over your light switch, and plastic animals with which to accessorise your iPhone charger. Not to mention, the ricotta hot cakes and wagyu beef burger were among the best pancakes and burger I’ve ever had. But nothing can replace the people I happened to meet and the conversations we happened to have. These alone made the whole experience far more memorable and, in hindsight, worthwhile.

The bread is landscape, thus so is this photo.

A few other jots regarding Tokyo:
      -        The frequency of people shorter than me increased a thousand-fold
      -        The frequency of foreigners increased a thousand-fold
      -        I was anonymous

This third factor was one of the main motivators to do a bit of sightseeing in the first place, to leave Gotsu for a bit. See, in the past year, my anonymity in this small town has dwindled to approximately zero. And it’s surprisingly unsettling. Other than at school or private events, I feel a lot of pressure whenever I enter the public space. The daily reality of “people staring” seems to be the main cause of this, but there’s also parents of students who say nothing when I greet them, or certain teachers who at times ignore me entirely. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking – if they’re just tired and don’t have the time, or if it’s something else. And while I manage to shrug off just enough self-consciousness to do everything I need to do, it remains with me a lot of the time, primarily if I’m by myself. I already know why this is: a group provides a source of belonging, which is something all of us, whether we know it or not, seek out. This belonging that’s felt in a group immunises me to the ‘judgements’, but only lasts as long as we’re together. Then, when I’m alone again, I feel ‘singled out’, in a way, by dint of all the staring.

I’m laughing to myself as I type this, because writing it all down makes it seem a bit silly and over-dramatic. Perhaps this process of writing could become a more reliable means of immunisation.

I’m emboldened when I think of others I’ve talked to who share the same feelings, including Japanese teachers I highly respect. I thought they were invincible, yet their own self-confidence is similarly sapped when they feel (regardless if those feelings reflect reality) the cold-eye judgements of those around them. In the least, I’m far from the only one, which makes it all a little bit more OK.

There are a lot of factors involved in these experiences. One of these is that Japanese people tend to keep a straight face a lot more often than western people. Contrarily, westerners both frown and smile on a far more frequent basis. When two familiar faces meet eyes, the thing to do is smile, but in Japan, the thing to do is nothing at all. The straight face is immoveable. Not always, but often.

This expressionlessness is entirely normal here, mind you, meaning that it’s no proper reason for me to infer that the person to whom that face belongs is thinking something negative. Yet, for whatever reason, my emotions and my intellect are at odds.

So as with a year ago, when all of this was a little less intense (because I was less -nonymous), I’m aware that this is entirely my problem and not the rest of Gotsu’s. But, as I’ve learned, it’s an issue that many people in the same situation face.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to see famliar faces. People whom I’ve met properly and whose names I know are always a delight to meet whether it’s planned or by chance. They’re friendly and talkative, and just this week one of them invited me to a barbecue that they were having the same evening.

There’s also Seiji the chiropractor, who gave me watermelon when I last visited, and, a while before that, boar meat. Seiji likes to hunt, you see. And his new assistant used to be an English teacher, so is able to convey those medical terms I don’t understand. They make a fantastic team, though I do feel a bit bad for the customers to whom he doesn’t give random gifts.

There’s also Takatsuno Elementary School, the best school I’ve ever known. Some of the teachers have decided that Wednesdays and Thursdays – the days I go to that school – are ‘English day’, and try their best to communicate with each other in English whether I’m present or not. They never get very far, but it’s not about how far they get.

The kids are also beyond amazing. I always tell people that before coming to Japan I never really liked children. Now? Well, let’s just say that I’ve never undergone so great a character shift. I gave the fifth graders summer holiday homework, and they all said “Thank you!” with bright eyes and grins on their faces, and without a single teacher prompting them. I was dumbfounded, and elated.

Coming to this school never fails to lift my spirits. The teachers with their warm smiles, who laugh at each other’s futile attempts at English and my often okashii (strange) display of Japanese, invoke a warm atmosphere that makes you feel right at home. They and the students remind me that there’s a lot to be grateful for.

And at the end of the day, with all the flat faces, the strange looks and random gifts, perhaps that’s the greatest immunisation of all. Gratitude.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Small town Japan brings out the inner Matt

The residence that I visited on Sunday for karaoke and tremendous amounts of food (including a blueberry chocolate tart, which everyone in the world must try), is not new. The floors are tatami-laid, the corridors struggle to fit two abreast, and the rails on which shōji (Japanese-style doors) stand have seen smoother times.

In spite of these, the house felt newer than most. This is because of the family that inhabit it.

It’s a family of six, and a family whose hospitality comes free of any need to impress. They possess a palpable sense of humour, yet no need to be funny when the silence is doing just fine. Children and parents who are conscious of others but not self-conscious, lively but not noisy. A family whose members share their belongings without thinking twice.

Others joined us. A total of two sizeable families, plus me. We sang, ate, talked, ate again, and sang some more. My stomach and I had a fulfilling time.

Bit of a cake. Context further down.

What I learn in every interaction of this kind is that true enjoyment is found in the act of bringing people together. The intimacy of community in a single space. Nothing too indulgent, nothing visually remarkable. What’s remarkable is that a rich experience comes without any need to be rich.

There was one visual treat. Beyond the windows, upon a backdrop of rice fields, roads, and a river that crept close to the hills, snow that petalled the landscape as if endless flower beds sit atop the clouds. There was intimacy in this, too. The realisation that this place wasn’t somewhere I’d come for sightseeing. I hadn’t paid money to enter through a gate, see nice things, and leave again. Rather, I live here. I work here. And these people who live here too are my friends. Two of them are my students. Students whose graciousness I wish I’d had even an ounce of when I was their age.

The value of community is not lost on them, and in my time with them I learned it to be more valuable than almost anything else.

The karaoke and food were good, but so is a movie, so is a video game. An experience of community involves far more than just the five senses. It’s an experience that I’ll treasure and not soon forget.

One thing I certainly won’t forget was the opportunity I had to help Ayami with her English homework. She’s usually too shy to talk to me, but today that shyness fell away like autumn leaves. She even admitted that she’s often shy, but that, in truth, she likes English. As if to assure me, she said most of the students in her class enjoy English and want to use it, but find it difficult.

Ironically, in that one conversation, she spoke a lot more English than I thought her capable of, including grammar she’d learnt only recently. I was encouraged by this, and I like to think that she was encouraged, too. Excluding all else, this short exchange of words was the most important. The most cherished.

This experience of community isn’t isolated. The day before this I went to a “Kids’ English theatre group’s” Christmas party. (I put that heading in quote marks because I’m really not sure what this group does. Basically, whatever they do, there’s always English involved.) There I dressed up as Santa to be the ‘final boss’ in a rock, paper, scissors ‘competition’ in which kids could earn presents. This part of the event took longer than the organisers expected, so, towards the end, Santa became a bit absent-minded and forgot how to form scissors and paper. The kids were OK with this, because it meant they could all receive a present.

We indulged in a potluck, decorated a giant cake and then ate it, sang Christmas songs in English (though next to no one knew the meaning of the words), and played games. The games were designed for the youngest of the crowd, though the older kids had the essential roles of coordinating their younger peers, leading their teams, or ensuring that I, the foreign guy, understood what was going on at every juncture. The parents and I participated in this or that, watched from a distance, or became an opponent in the aforementioned rock, paper, scissors competition.

I should mention that eighty percent of these kids were kids I teach at some point in my schedule, and that among the parents were at least four teachers I work with.

After the event while people collected their belongings, a number of the JHS and high school kids, along with some parents, were lounging around, waiting for rides or just not yet bothering to leave. We taught each other interesting English and Japanese, and found that the two languages have a lot in common in spite of their differences.

I’d seen two of these kids – Naoki and Chihiro – the previous day at school. At different times, they each approached me to ensure I knew when the party started, where to go, and what to bring. Naoki is an impossible combination of cool and hard-working, popular yet respectful. And so is his mum, whom I work with at another school. She told me that I’ve inspired him to want to become an English teacher, but specifically one who goes abroad to teach.

Chihiro’s spoken and written English is beyond excellent for her age, and oftentimes I turn to her in class when I don’t know the answer to another student’s question. We teach each other.

That day at school was one of the busiest days this year for me, but so memorable due to how intentional those kids were in ensuring that I was informed about the Christmas party. It cemented the truth of what their parents had said about them ‘really wanting’ me to come. Not to beat a dead horse, but just the privilege of knowing them makes me feel very rich indeed.

In spite of all the events I might go to, and the many people I spend time with, I never seem to grow weary. This wasn’t the case in New Zealand. I currently pin this on the difference in culture and people. It’s not a bad difference, but perhaps the average social setting in New Zealand isn’t quite so compatible with my temperament. Combined with western culture and expectations, the atmosphere of a group environment, for instance, puts pressure on me to stand out, and, in small ways, compete for attention. When you don’t – when you’re quiet or appear tired – people often comment, or question you. They ensure that the spotlight gets to you because you didn’t voluntarily call for it.

In Japan this has never happened. You don’t have to talk, and no one’s going to force you to. Yet people are ready to listen when you have something to say. Two friends – Hayato and Ryohei – are easy to spend time with because the calmess of their dispositions is such that I don’t feel any pressure to say anything I don’t want to say.

Introversion isn't the exception here, but the assumption. Yet it seems that I'm an extrovert until I'm around non-Japanese people.

It’s somewhat rare in New Zealand for me to meet someone and feel any measureable desire to get to know them more. But in Japan the opposite is the exception. The difference between grazing gazelles and boisterous monkeys. Sort of.

Not a gazelle, but nonetheless very friendly.
There is one caveat to all this pleasantry. I’m currently inbound to New Zealand, and there’s a tradition in Japan where if you go away on holiday, you bring back a small gift (usually edible) for everyone to indulge in upon your return. The more people you know or spend time with, the longer your list of recipients becomes. So, it’s important to tell only your closest friends.

But, of course, work colleagues also need to know.

Yesterday morning at school, Chikashige Sensei, whom I sit beside in the staff room, just 'happened' to be looking up New Zealand products online. He seemed to remember that I was leaving that day.
“Take care,” he said. “Enjoy spending time with your family.”
I’d already taken note of the images on his monitor, along with the cheeky expression on his face. So, in a whisper that only he could hear, I said, “I’ll bring you something. Please wait.”
“Of course!” he exclaimed, only he didn't whisper. He turned his head so that he faced the bulk of the staff room and yelled, “Everyone, Matt’s bringing us presents!”

I guess it’s a good thing that I’m rich. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

What is it with people throwing their kids at me?

In the land of the samurai and the ninja, few things are certain.

I went to the chiropractor last week. His name is Seiji, and he did the usual job of fixing my back. There was the usual TV with the news in which a woman very courteously explained the forthcoming weather. There were the usual seats just a mite too small for me, causing my knees to protrude into the air as I sat and waited my turn. And there was the usual company of a student or two, also waiting, whom I saw at school earlier that day.

But it had been six months since my last visit here, and in that time Seiji had found a wife.

“I’m married man!” he exclaimed while applying ample palm pressure to my back. He said this while I lay face down on the bed, trying to relax but also not slide off. It was a tricky balance.
“Wow! Congratulations!” I said.
“Hahaha!” was his reply, not noticing my predicament. Everything I say seems to make him laugh.
He told me he has a kid, that his kid is incredibly cute, and that he and his wife are very happy. I said I’d like to meet his kid.

Later, as I approached the receptionist to pay, a woman carrying a baby emerged from the back door.
“My wife and my baby!” Seiji exclaimed. As it turned out, their house was part of the same building. Fair enough. But how did she materialise with such perfect timing?
“Hold baby,” he said, ignoring my bewilderment. “Let’s take picture!”
I held the baby. The receptionist scrambled to take a picture. Seiji and I went through the process of adding each other on Facebook, which, like the baby himself, I did not expect.

Seiji, baby, and me.

Nothing about Seiji is certain. He always has a new story to tell, and he loves to tell it. His stories are twice as good due to his animated gestures which go a long way in making up for his lack of English. He’s also getting better at dumbing down (and slowing down) his Japanese so that I can understand him.

Some things in Japan are certain: the peace, the orderliness, the atmosphere, the routines and the routine things to say as you greet people. Even the layout at every convenience store is uniform: that is, they all resemble Pokemarts exactly.

This isn't a bad thing.

I can, with certainty, walk into Naoko’s flower shop and say, “Indoor plant. Easy to manage. Need,” and know that she’ll provide.
I can walk into the hairdressers and say, “The usual,” and be sure that they’ll be sure what I want.
And I can visit Seiji and say, “Fix my back, eh?” and know that he’ll do a decent job of fixing it (as much as it can be fixed – which, if we’re honest, isn’t very much).

But in spite of what might be expected, there is so much that simply can't. People's reactions here are golden, and their quirks are uncontestable. It’s hard to put in words. I guess, if you’ve ever watched an anime, know that the bizarrely animated reactions of characters aren’t actually all that bizarre. They’re based on reality. One of the English teachers I work with very nearly falls over whenever I tell her something funny and/or ridiculous. She has to grab hold of the nearest desk what with her knees giving way.

Just this morning, Akiko, one of the other teachers, made a point of complimenting my Japanese. She didn’t know how to express her delight in words I’d understand, so how did she do it? She patted me on the head and clapped, and everyone else in the room stopped what they were doing and laughed at her methods.

This may be what I love most about Japan. There’s predictibility: the system is the system is the system. But within this system, people couldn’t be less predictable. The sun comes up as it always does, but then it does something totally out of the ordinary. It waves at you and says hello, and you’re like, “Wow, this country is amazing!”


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