Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter in Hiroshima: A season of all seasons

I've been wanting for a long time to snap some snowy pictures around my neighborhood. But it doesn't snow that much in Hiroshima, and when it does it doesn't often accumulate. This afternoon, though, I peeked out the window to see I'd finally gotten my wish, on the last day of the year.

Winter's a bit funny in Hiroshima. It's not like the period of drab, gray gloom that overtakes Ohio. There are still streaks of life under that thin layer of snow. Kinda makes you wonder, what season is it really anyway?

Some shots from my neighborhood:

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Where's the beef? Kobe!

After plenty of hemming and hawing for several weeks this fall, Joe and I finally accepted that we really didn't want to go anywhere this Christmas. School closes down for several days over the New Year holiday, but prices are a lot higher during that period and when it came down to it, the prospect of going abroad just left us both feeling exhausted. So we just planned a couple short trips in December instead and now we're home being lazy bums till the New Year.

The first trip was a weekend in Kobe and Osaka Dec. 12 and 13. If the name Kobe doesn't ring a bell right away, think beef — Kobe beef. At $100 a pop, these aren't your ordinary everyday beef steaks. The cows that produce Kobe beef are treated like royalty as far as cows go (well, apart from the whole slaughtering thing). Legend has it that the farmers raising these particular cows give them beer and massages everyday. I've even read that some get massages with warm sake, though that seems just a bit too far over the top for me to believe. Whatever it is they do, the result is the most tender, flavorful steak in the world.

Now, there's no doubt $100 for a steak is obscene. I don't dispute that. But considering I hadn't had a real steak in two and a half years, since moving to Japan, I didn't feel TOO guilty about it. Hey, once in a lifetime thing, right? Right.

We went to a restaurant called Mouriya in downtown Kobe, where they had English menus and seated us at the griddle so we could watch the chef prepare the steaks right in front of us. Joe and I both got the top-graded A5 filet mignon lunch set, priced at 9,800 yen.

I thought the chef was finished when I photographed this, but after I took the picture he also added some bean sprouts cooked with little bits of fat he cut off from the meat. The meal also came with some soup, salad and tea.

I know this doesn't look like much, and indeed I was still hungry when I left the place (most expensive meal I'll ever eat where I walk out still hungry!), but the meat was far and away the best I've ever tasted. So soft and tender, and perfect with just a little bit of salt. I've heard people say it's so rich that they could eat just a small serving, but I didn't feel that way. My Freudian Id was urging me to reach out and snatch my neighbor's steak and eat it, too.

After lunch we hung out a while in a coffee shop before heading to the Kobe Luminarie, one of Japan's famous winter illuminations. The Luminarie was actually the whole reason for the trip, though as it turned out I ended up being more excited about eating the Kobe beef. (And, it was better than the Luminarie.)

The Luminarie runs for 12 days every year in early December and is a tribute to the rebirth of Kobe city after its destruction in a big earthquake in 1995. The installation, donated by the Italian government, is a series of arches designed to look like a cathedral. Seen from afar, they form a rather impressive tunnel of light.

Kobe Luminarie's main attraction

A kind of light castle at the end of the tunnel.

The lights were pretty, but the crowd was insane. People started lining up at least an hour before the lights switched on at 4:45, and the city had erected blockades along streets snaking throughout the downtown. Having been warned that the wait to go through can become hours long, we made sure to arrive early enough to be near the front of the line. Even so, the sheer number of people made it impossible to enjoy the lights in peace. Everyone was bumping into me, ruining photographs by sticking their cell phone cameras up into my shot, etc. Rather than getting the warm and fuzzy holiday spirit one would expect from such a fantastic lights display, I just felt like kicking a lot of people. And, I also think the lights would have been prettier in the pitch dark rather than the twilight, but again, that would've meant waiting for a couple hours.

So, that particular part of the trip was a little disappointing, though I was still glad we went since I always would have wondered about it if we hadn't gone. The next day we paid a visit to the Osaka aquarium before taking the bus back to Hiroshima.

View of Osaka aquarium from the ferris wheel (it's the oddly shaped red and blue building).

Osaka's aquarium is one of the biggest in the world, and it was pretty awesome. It's eight stories and there's a huge central tank running between several floors that contains some whale sharks, stingrays, manta rays and sea turtles, all very impressive.

Whale shark (Photo by Joe)

Whale shark again.

If Andy Rooney were a fish...


No idea, but this is one funky fish. (Photo by Joe)

Some sort of jellyfish.

Sardines (Photo by Joe)

These look tasty. (Photo by Joe)

Aww. Can you get any cuter than this lil guy?

In the last exhibit, visitors had a chance to pet a stingray and a small shark. I did. Joe watched.

It felt very soft and slimy. Don't worry, its stinging ability had been removed. No Steve Irwin mishaps here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fall foliage and friendly faces

The beautiful shrine across the street, end of November.

Christmas is coming, and I haven't even written about autumn yet. In my defense, the fall colors weren't at their peak in my neck of the woods until the end of November.

View of a mountain from the third floor of our apartment building in late November.

I'd been looking forward to Thanksgiving time for months — probably more than a year, in fact. That's because my friends Diane and Paul came to visit us from New York City. I used to work with Diane on the newspaper back home, and she moved to New York right after I moved to Japan.

It was so exciting to have friends visit, finally, and get to share what life is like here first hand. Countless times I remember telling Joe at our favorite neighborhood okonomiyaki joint that I couldn't wait to take Diane and Paul there. After months of anticipation, it was practically surreal to see them both walking toward us at the train station downtown.

We hit the requisite tourist spots around Hiroshima: Peace Park and the atomic bomb museum, Hiroshima Castle, Miyajima and last, Mitaki Temple (as well as that okonomiyaki joint!).

Paul, Diane, me and Joe at Miyajima

Our trip to Mitaki was actually my third that month. (You'll recall my Zen-like discovery of Mitaki last summer.) I'd gone in early November to find the leaves were just barely starting to change, and then in mid-November I actually took a day off work specifically to go to Mitaki in the middle of the week so that I could enjoy the fall foliage without the crowds. The colors were a bit muted then, though, and the place was overrun with old people. I thought I'd already missed the show.

Turned out I'd just gone too soon. The colors were fantastic while we were there with our friends, and I was happy they'd get to see the temple at its best.

On this visit I knew a bit more about what I was looking at, since I'd done some more research on Mitaki for an article in the Wide Island View.

It turns out that all these statues of children wearing red bibs and caps are called jizo. They represent a deity known as the guardian of children, particularly children who died before their parents. It makes sense that these are here because there actually was a military hospital on the site of Mitaki during World War II, and many of the atomic bomb victims were brought there to be treated. In fact, monks buried the unidentified victims there in those mossy old tombstones I photographed on the last visit.

Wikipedia has this to say about jizo:
In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that Jizō saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe, and letting them hear mantras.

Jizō statues are sometimes accompanied by a little pile of stones and pebbles, put there by people in the hope that it would shorten the time children have to suffer in the underworld. (The act is derived from the tradition of building stupas as an act of merit-making.) The statues can sometimes be seen wearing tiny children's clothing or bibs, or with toys, put there by grieving parents to help their lost ones and hoping that Jizō would specially protect them. Sometimes the offerings are put there by parents to thank Jizō for saving their children from a serious illness.
Interesting stuff. Also, remember that horrific, spiky haired demon statue I photographed on the last trip? This one?

He, I found out, is one of the Shitenno, guardians of the four directions. Which of the four he is, I still don't know. At any rate, they are warriors that ward off evil. (I sure as heck wouldn't want to mess with this guy!)

Just a few last shots:

More guardians at the temple's entrance.

It was great to share these places with Diane and Paul. As visitors, they were seeing Japan through a set of fresh eyes, and it reminded me a lot of what it was like when I first got to Japan. Paul was eager to try all the new and novel drinks in Japan's ubiquitous vending machines, and Diane had tried her best to avoid the squat toilets, only to find herself eventually forced into using one (just as I was). They enjoyed seeing all the oddball Engrish clothing and shirts all over Japan. The Engrish hasn't lost its charm for me, though I do find that I don't always look twice anymore at certain weird stuff. Recently Joe and I were in an elevator with advertisements for restaurants in that department store. One of the restaurants was named "Goo Goo Viking" or something like that. I remember commenting to Joe, "You know, I guess that's funny isn't it? When I first got here I would have been so tickled by how wacky that is, but now I just figure... eh!" We've gotten used to buffets being called "Viking", and a restaurant called Goo Goo? Well... par for the course of the butchered English language we encounter everyday.

I digress. It was lovely having Diane and Paul here. We got up early on a Tuesday to see them off at the bus station and I was caught off guard by how suddenly very sad I felt as I watched their bus pull away. Just a little affirmation that I think it's time to go home next summer, and get back to a place where all the faces are familiar again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Zzzzz for effort?

Snoozin' on the job

The Japanese are very sleepy people. They are experts at being able to sleep anywhere, any time. At work, in meetings, sitting on the train, standing on the train — any time they can grab a few winks, they do. Vending machines are stacked with a huge variety of espresso drinks and other super-caffeinated elixors to help them battle the Sandman.

When I first arrived in Japan, one of the things that shocked me about my school was seeing teachers sleep at their desks. It is not an uncommon sight to see various teachers put their heads down on their desks during the day and just take a nap for 20 minutes or even an hour. What's particularly shocking about this is that it happens in the main teachers' office, right in front of the vice principal.

It's the same story in class. Students will bow their heads and sleep through an entire class, completely undisturbed by the teacher, who appears not to even notice or care.

There's a kind of mutual understanding that everybody's just exhausted all the time. "Shou ga nai" as the Japanese would say — "It can't be helped."

There's good reason for all these droopy eyelids. The typical Japanese teacher works 12 to 14 hours a day. Technically, they only have to be at school until 5 p.m., but I think they might be branded as lazy if they actually left at that time. They start their day around 7:30 a.m. and most are there till at least 7:30 p.m., and some as late as 9:30 p.m. Or even later.

Now, being honest, this does not always mean they've got their nose to the grindstone the whole time (as you can see). I do think they tend to be less efficient than the standard 9-to-5er. Sometimes, much to my annoyance, presence is valued over productivity; there are days when they are just logging the face time expected of them, doing eight hours of work spread out over 12 (or more) hours, wasting their lives away.

My supervisor tells me teachers at my school typically teach 18 classes per week (each class being 50 minutes long). That works out to three or four classes a day — less than what most American teachers do in my hometown, especially now that budget cuts have slashed school staff to the bare minimum.

That said, they do have some responsibilities that American teachers don't. First of all, most of them are assigned (involuntarily and arbitrarily) to supervise school clubs and sports, which often meet for several hours after school everyday. Some, like the baseball team, even meet for practice before school as well. Oh, and those teams and clubs meet year-round. Now it's true that some American teachers coach teams too, but that's voluntary and they get paid additional salary to do that. Japanese teachers don't.

On top of that, most of the teachers are assigned to be homeroom teachers. The ones unlucky enough to be homeroom teachers for seniors serve as counselors to their 40 homeroom students, guiding them through the process of getting into college. This is no small task, as anyone acquainted with the college applications process in America knows.

Japanese teachers also play a much more active role in students' lives than American teachers. If a child gets hurt or lands in some trouble outside school, often the homeroom teacher is called before the parents. Whereas American parents tend to be really defensive about not wanting outsiders to interfere with how they raise their kids, in Japan it's just the opposite. Homeroom teachers in Japan are more intimately involved in the character development of each student, working to instill discipline and decency. Recently, one student at my school was picked up by the police for throwing rocks at an abandoned building and breaking windows (something I once did as a teenager — minus the getting arrested part!). His teacher had to scrap weekend plans to pick him up from the police station and likely give him the scolding of his life. Another example: In a lot of upper-academic schools, like mine, students are prohibited from having part-time jobs outside of school. The thinking is that they should be focusing their full attention on studying. If parents discover their kid has a secret job, they might not take it upon themselves to confront their child and make him quit. No, they very well may call the kid's homeroom teacher and make the teacher get the kid to quit!

Then when you consider that it's common for teachers to come in to work on Saturday, and sometimes Sunday as well, to teach supplementary classes and supervise student activities, you start to understand why they are falling asleep at their desks.

As for the students? Consider some of the daily stresses endured by Japanese students. There are no school buses for high school students, and they can't drive because the legal minimum driving age is 18 (and they're not allowed to get their license before graduation). So all the students ride their bicycles to school, some from significant distances. Remember, schools here do not serve as neighborhood schools like schools in America; students must take exams to gain entrance to certain schools, and they attend the best school they can get in to in their area. If they live in the countryside, that school could be very far away. Joe has students who commute by bus, train and bicycle from their home two hours away. Imagine how exhausting that gets day after day — especially if you're one of those kids who really wants to play a sport, and it requires practice before school starts! The Japanese are hardcore when it comes to these pursuits; if you want to be part of the team, you must be at every practice. No excuses.

As if the commute and the extra-curricular meetings weren't enough, there's also jukusupplementary "cram" schools that students attend in the evenings and on weekends to try to get ahead so they can go on to the best colleges. My supervisor guesses that around a third of the students at my school attend juku at some point during their high school years.

You know those articles you always read saying how U.S. schools are so far behind schools in other countries, especially in Asia? Say like this recent MSNBC story that included this nugget:

Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the United States (180 days).

Yeah... that's totally misleading. While it does clearly demonstrate how much time is actually wasted in Japanese schools on non-instructional activities, what's missing from this equation is the number of hours Japanese kids spend in cram school. If that were factored in, it would be easy to see why Japanese kids are outscoring American kids — because in reality the Japanese are spending far more time in the classroom.

It's not at all unusual for some of my students to head to juku at the end of the regular school day and stay there until late in the evening, say 10 p.m. Last year a couple girls in my advanced English class told me that not only did they attend juku everyday after school during the week, but they also attended on Saturdays and Sundays — for 12 hours each day! That 12 hours a day applied every day over summer vacation, too! They were happy when summer "vacation" was over! I could hardly believe it when they told me that. Who can imagine American schoolchildren forfeiting their summer vacations to take extra classes 12 hours a day all summer long in hopes of getting into a better college? It's inconceivable! There is actually a Japanese term to describe this kind of insanity: shiken jigoku — literally, "examination hell."

Some Japanese children start going to juku from a very young age in hopes that the extra preparation will get them into a better junior high school, then a better high school and then the best university. They sacrifice their childhoods in the name of their future. I know one woman who told me she was forced to go to juku in elementary school, and it is her worst memory of that period of time in her life. It's just heartbreaking how much pressure Japanese society places on the children here. There seems to be no recognition that people have limits, that learning has limits! After sitting in regular school all day, who has the mental energy to absorb much more at juku? It seems absolutely crazy! There's no time for reflection, no time for critical thought. I almost feel like it's a form of mind control.

In fact, in some ways I feel like the time demands on students result in lower expectations at regular school. Their schedules are crammed so full that deadlines for homework in my school seem to be unenforceable — some of the kids literally have no time to do their homework, so they're routinely allowed to hand in assignments late (and even then, clearly done half-ass).

One of my other JET friends gave her students a survey that included a question about how many hours of sleep they usually get each night. Some of the kids said they averaged four hours a night.

That is why students fall asleep in class, and that is why the teachers ignore it. I don't get upset when it happens in my class. Usually I leave the Sleepy McGees alone unless their participation is necessary for the lesson at that moment, in which case I take a piece of paper and rest it atop their head and wave it back and forth while saying cheerily, "Wake up! Wake up!", until the tickling of their hair startles them awake. I feel it doesn't do any good to get angry at the kids.

It's this "Life is Work" approach that has contributed toward something of a revolt among a subset of Japanese youth who can't handle the pressure. I read a book a while back called Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan created its own lost generation, by Michael Zielenziger. It's about the phenomenon of hikikomori, young people who completely withdraw from society. They lock themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out — sometimes for years. Their families enable them by leaving food outside their doors, but family members are too embarrassed to reach out for help. There are more than 1 million of these shut-ins, according to this book. That's mind-boggling! But can you blame these guys? I think I'd become a hermit too if I were Japanese!

Part of this book focuses on a guy named Hiro, whose parents sent him off to juku starting at age 5. Since he'd scored well on intelligence tests, they hoped he could earn a place at an elite elementary school that belonged to a feeder program that would ultimately guarantee students admission to a prestigious university. Hiro started juku each day at 4 p.m. and wouldn't get home until 10 p.m. He was constantly exhausted. At age 6, he flunked the entrance exam, but his parents pushed him to continue studying for entrance exams anyway so he could go to a top school. In an interview with the author as an adult, Hiro recalled outbursts of anger toward his mother due to all the pressure, saying:

I remember one time yelling at her and saying 'I am not going to be your robot anymore.' I remember all this anger welling up inside me. I threw a cup against the wall. Another time I threw my pencil box out the window. She pushed me so much... she ruined my youth.

Don't get me wrong, I have great respect for the Japanese work ethic, but I also think that this level of stress is unnecessary, not to mention unhealthy. Last year, I visited an 11th grade class to teach a special lesson and I noticed a kid with patches of hair missing all over his head. I saw the kid sitting there twisting hairs and pulling them out! When I said something to the classroom teacher after class, she said he was OK, but his hair was falling out because of stress. She said this like it was no big deal, just an everyday statement of fact. Well, whether it was stress, or a medical condition like trichotillomania, obviously that kid's dealing with way too much anxiety — why was I seemingly the only one so bothered by it? (Maybe they were just brushing me off because they already had it handled?) In recent weeks there's also been a girl who routinely comes barging into the teachers' office at random times in a full blown panic attack, hyperventilating into a paper bag.

The light at the end of the tunnel for these kids is college. I'm told that once they graduate high school, the pressure lifts. Whereas going to university only doubled my workload, the opposite happens for Japanese college students. For them, it's Party Time! (I guess it's party time for American college kids too... but for us it's "Work hard, play hard." For the Japanese, it's more like "Worked hard, play hard.") It is not their performance in a college that is so important — it is what college they gain admission to. Once in, they are allowed to coast by — rather low expectations are placed on them. As long as they show up, they pretty much cannot fail, and once they graduate and get a job (and many colleges have arrangements to feed graduates into certain companies), their company will put them through a training program. Then of course it is back to work. For those who enter white collar professions, becoming what the Japanese term a "salaryman", they can only look forward to a lifetime of 60- to 80- hour work weeks — just like the teachers at my school.

Japan has created the perfect system to churn out generation after generation of workaholics. Indeed, most of them are so overworked, they hardly have time to form their own identity. I feel like a lot of them wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they did have free time! Some of my co-workers will readily tell you that they go home everyday after work and spend what little time is left before bed by drinking. And they don't see anything wrong with that. It's so depressing.

This all sounds pretty brutal, doesn't it? I wonder if I have the impression that it's worse than it is. After all, many of my students are happy. They seem to like school. They talk about how much they enjoy their school club activities, respect their teachers and love their friends. They may be insanely busy, but the up side is their shared exhaustion seems to produce a deep sense of camaraderie.