Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The sun sets on 3 years in Japan

Well, this is it! Joe and I are flying out of Japan tomorrow morning, so this will be my final blog post. A lot of mixed feelings right now — sadness that this journey is coming to an end, excitement about moving back, being near family and resuming a life where certain everyday things are less of a challenge.

We've had an incredible three years living and teaching in Japan. During this time I've done so many things I never dreamed I'd do. Standing in front of my first class of Japanese teenagers, I wasn't sure this would turn out so well, but I adapted to teaching and came to appreciate its many challenges. I've studied Japanese and learned it well enough to express what I want to say, albeit simply. I've been to the top of the world — watching the sun rise from the top of Mt. Fuji — to the bottom of the sea — swimming with sea turtles in Okinawa. It still blows my mind to even think about it. And besides traveling throughout Japan, we also spread our wings and went abroad, to Thailand, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Macau. It's been an exhilarating and mind opening three years, a true adventure. When I came to Japan, I had a precious opportunity to be immersed in Japanese culture. But I also had the chance to see my own country and culture in an entirely new light, and now I'm coming away from this experience with a whole new perspective on America — its wonders as well as its weaknesses. Now, just as I once wished I could combine the best aspects of my ex-boyfriends into the perfect prince charming, I find myself wishing I could somehow combine the best of both these lands into a sort of paradise.

The Japanese have a saying, "Sumeba miyako," which literally translates to "If you live there, it's the capital" — the capital being the best place to be. So wherever you decide to settle, that place becomes home. After three years calling Hiroshima my home, I think this certainly applies. There is much I'll miss about Hiroshima and Japan. Tomorrow morning I'll be leaving a piece of my heart in Hiroshima.

Thanks to all of you who followed me on this journey. I've enjoyed sharing it with you.

さようなら日本、また会う日まで —> Sayounara Japan, until we meet again.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kato-chan, where everybody knew our names

Kuni-kun and Shin-chan, our favorite okonomiyaki cooks

The past couple weeks have been filled with goodbyes for us. On Friday, after returning our apartment key to our landlord, we headed to our favorite Japanese restaurant, Kato-chan, for one final order of okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki is Hiroshima's biggest specialty, and it's also my favorite Japanese food. How have I managed not to write about this yet? Okonomiyaki translates to something like "As-you-like-it-cooking" and basically consists of a paper thin flour pancake topped with a heap of shredded cabbage, noodles, meat, a layer of egg, some seasonings and a liberal dose of a barbecue-like sauce. There are a number of other ingredients you can add in as well; my usual included green onions, cheese and mochi (glutinous pounded rice cakes — they get warm and gooey on the stove). Top it all off with plenty of mayonnaise and you've got a very satisfying meal:

Joe and I were to Kato-chan what Norm was to Cheers. It was our neighborhood haunt, just a family-owned hole in the wall but a place where everyone knew our names and greeted us with a smile when we walked in the door. The okonomiyaki there was always delicious, and kept us coming back every week or two for three years. We had our own seats at the bar, right in front of the stove — in fact we ate right off the stove (can't do that in America!). That way we could chat up our okonomiyaki cooks, Kuni-kun and Shin-chan. Since they don't speak any English, it was always a good chance for us to practice our Japanese, and over time we became friends. Once, they even took us out to dinner in Iwakuni. Nice guys. Gonna miss them. A lot. And their okonomiyaki.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Nuanced" English

I was looking back through old photos tonight and found some hilarious pictures I took two years ago and meant to blog about but never did. They're from a book meant to teach English slang and colloquial language to Japanese speakers. My Japanese teacher picked this up and loaned it to me to see what I thought of it. Once I started thumbing through the pages I knew I had a gem on my hands. Not only was some of the slang flat-out wrong or inappropriate, but the thought of a Japanese person trying to whip out one of these phrases in the company of foreign friends seemed totally absurd. Exhibit A: (Click any of the following pictures to see larger versions.)

To teach the word "Awesome!":
  • Boy: I'm stiff. I got something for you.
  • Girl: Wow. Awesome!
Below that, to teach the phrase "be a hero":
  • Boy: Even I could give a gift.
  • Girl: Don't be a hero. Show it to me. Quick.

To teach the phrase "Way-out!" (I guess they probably meant "Far out"?):

Guy 1: By the way, my dad will get hitched for the seventh time.
Guy 2 (wearing dog ears and mask for unknown reasons): Way-out! Awesome!

To teach use of the phrase "or something":
  • "I'm starving. Let's munch pizza or something."
Below that, to teach usage of "send...over":
  • Boy 1: If you drop by my crib, I'll send my bro over.
  • Boy 2: Don't worry. We're coming by the store.

To teach the supposed use of the slang "dented":
  • "I don't want to hear the story. It gets me dented."

To teach the exclamation "You bold-faced.":
  • "Don't play it so snotty. You bold-faced."
Below that, to teach the insult "jerk":
  • "You're a same old jerk."
Same old jerk?? OUCH!

To teach the word "lippy":
  • "Yell as much as you like. You lippy asshole."

To teach the word "crap":
  • One guy golfing tells the other guy, "Don't rap the crap and strike it now."

To teach the exclamation "How loud-mouthed you are!":
  • "How loud-mouthed you are! You can say one thing but you can't say the other."
Awfully polite way to confront the offending party, don't you think?

Below that, to teach the word "sassy":
  • "Don't talk sassy. You greenie, you."
What does that even mean?! Haha!

To teach the expression "go wild":
  • Smoking toddler warns, "If you talk strict, I will go wild."
Below that, to teach the word "glued":
  • "Chocolates are glued to your shirt again."
And last, the precious illustration at the back of the book:

My favorite is the panda that says "Alley-oop!"

Perhaps some of this is British or Australian slang I'm not familiar with. Or more likely it's just a really crappily translated book. The funny thing is that Joe has a similar type of book for learning Japanese slang, but when he showed it to a Japanese person he learned that a lot of the slang was really old or had fallen out of use. Lesson learned: Beware of learning slang in a second language. It's a mine field.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The dude in the frilly dress

Over the past three years we've become acquainted with lots of Hiroshima's little quirks. One of them being this guy:

Occasionally we see him walking down the Hondori shopping arcade downtown, always in a very frilly little girl type dress. A few days ago I snapped him wearing this number, which had the lyrics to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" sewn onto one part.

Gonna miss Hiroshima and all its quirky charm.

Monday, August 9, 2010

65 years after the Bomb

Peace cranes hanging around the Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park.

Friday, August 6, was the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Yanked from slumber by a 5 a.m. alarm, Joe and I rose and got ready to catch the first train downtown to attend the ceremony. Thousands were already milling about the park when we arrived, but luckily we were early enough to grab a seat below the tents so that we could watch the ceremony shielded from the sun's brutal rays.

Friday's ceremony was attended for the first time ever by the U.S. ambassador and officials from the UK and France. Clearly, the mayor of Hiroshima said, the urgency of nuclear weapons abolition is permeating the global consciousness. He pledged to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons by 2020, issuing an impassioned plea at the end of his speech that brought a tear to my eye:

We hereby declare that we cannot force the most patiently enduring people in the world, the hibakusha, to be patient any longer. Now is the time to devote ourselves unreservedly to the most crucial duty facing the human family, to give the hibakusha, within their lifetimes, the nuclear-weapon-free world that will make them blissfully exclaim, "I'm so happy I lived to see this day."

I was glad I went to the ceremony one last time. I feel privileged to have been able to attend and be a part of an event that brings together the citizens of Hiroshima and the international community.

Peace cranes in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome

Friends and relatives sometimes ask me what it's like being an American living in Hiroshima — is there lingering resentment against America for the atomic bombing? The answer, for the most part, is no. To me personally, the Japanese have always been very welcoming. Their sentiments seem to be that the bombing was a long time ago; now, we should look forward with a common purpose to build a more peaceful world. Some of my Japanese students and colleagues have discussed the bombing with me. They are eager to share their feelings about how terrible the bomb was, but they aren't angry — just adamant in their belief that the bombing was wrong and should never be repeated.

Occasionally we do encounter anti-American sentiment, though it's not common. There are some right wing nationalists in Japan that spread their message using vans that drive around neighborhoods spouting right wing propaganda through megaphones at high decibels. Unfortunately some of these guys came to the bomb ceremony this year to spread their hate and bile. As Joe and I walked over the bridge into the park, some Japanese people handed us fliers with a smile. Only later, as we sat waiting for the ceremony to begin, did I read the fliers and discover it was anti-American propaganda with segments like the following:

How do those people sleeping beneath the ground think of Japan today? How do they speak about the present situation that the U.S. has not only refused to apologize for but is also using Japan as a shield to defend their mainland from potential nuclear attacks and thereby draws Japan into another nuclear war? What do they say about the present condition of Japan in which the agriculture, fishery and industries throughout have been devastated, downtowns have declined, Japanese education, scholarship and culture have collapsed under subordination to the U.S.? How do they talk about the actual situation that the history of Japanese people has been broken off and has taken the same course as that of an American Indian? Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and innocent women, children, old people, workers and students were killed as mere worms. The dropping of the atomic bombs by the U.S. was completely unnecessary in order to end the war. It was a brutal act for the purpose of occupying Japan exclusively. Though the defeat of Japan was already obvious, Japanese rulers prolonged the war to maintain their positions against people's resistance, victimizing more than three million, welcoming the atomic bombings and occupation by the U.S. and practically selling the whole nation to the U.S. Such anti-national reactionaries have caused devastation of Japanese society today.

I was angry when I read this. Here thousands were gathered in a display of unity and peace to express the sincere hope for a world free of nuclear weapons, and at the entrance to the park were people still promoting division and hate, and assigning blame.

So to those who ask if we ever encounter resentment in Hiroshima — yes, but rarely. Those who feel this way are a tiny minority. The Hiroshima I know is a vibrant and loving city, looking forward with hope and optimism. While some may disagree about whether the atomic bombing was justified, they all seem to share the feeling that that's not what's important now; now, we just need to come together and work for a more peaceful future.

A woman prays at the Peace Bell in Peace Memorial Park. This is the bell rung at 8:15 a.m. each August 6 to mark the moment the bomb went off.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hiroshima Carp center fielder...or Spiderman?

Check out this incredible video I saw on JetWit.com. The Hiroshima Carp were playing the Yokohama Bay Stars on August 3 when outfielder Masato Akamatsu robbed the Bay Stars of a home run with this unbelievable catch.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hello Goodbye Enkai

Today was my last day as a JET, and my three-year anniversary in Japan. Goodbye job, goodbye health insurance! I'll miss you.

Joe and I have been replaced by another American couple who arrived in Hiroshima around a week ago. Last Friday I went out with the new JET for my school and the other English teachers for a welcome/farewell party at an izakaya (Japanese bar) downtown. Much Japanese food was consumed and cold drinks imbibed, and all were merry, as you can see in the photo above. I think the students will love the new JET — blond hair and blue eyes? Oh, I can see them swooning now.

My supervisor drove me home after work on my last day and we moved most of our furniture and belongings out to the new couples' apartment. All the teachers gathered at the front of the school to wave goodbye to me as I left, and it made me cry. I remember thinking it felt a bit like I was waving goodbye to family. I wish I could make them understand how good it made me feel. I'll really miss them.

We fly back to America August 18. Lots to say, little time to write.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I've been putting off writing this post. Part of it is that Joe and I have been really busy preparing our exit from Japan later this month. But part of it's also that this is a tough thing to write about.

We've been saying a lot of goodbyes the past couple weeks, but the biggest was the final day of school before students' summer break began July 23. The school was to hold the usual closing ceremony in the gym that morning and I was slated to give my farewell speech to everyone, around 1,000 students and teachers.

But plans took a nasty turn. The night before the ceremony, as I laid down to bed, I got a text message on my phone from a fellow English teacher: A student had committed suicide at school. He'd jumped from a window.

I was stunned and went to bed crying. With a heavy heart, I returned to school the following morning and learned the details about what happened.

That whole week had been parent-teacher conference week, so the schedule had been modified. Classes were being held in the morning, and conferences in the afternoon and evening. Schools don't send report cards home in Japan. Instead, parents come to school to meet with their child and his/her homeroom teacher to discuss the student's performance.

This particular boy, an 11th grader, was having the meeting with his father and homeroom teacher about 5:20 p.m. The meeting was just about wrapping up when the boy stood up, walked across the classroom and simply jumped out the window, falling four stories to his death in the courtyard below.

Classrooms in Japan have large, single pane sliding windows with no screen. And since summer brings brutal temperatures and many classrooms don't have air conditioning, the windows sit wide open. Aside from a small ledge, there is nothing to stop someone from going out the window. For a long time I'd intended to post a photo of one of these shockingly unsafe windows on my blog with a snarky joke involving OSHA. Not funny anymore.

It's a mystery why this boy decided to jump. Bad grades, too much pressure? Not sure, though I was told that at least in the past he was always a good student. I remember having him in Oral Communication class all year last year and he never had trouble.

Of course his death changed the plan for Friday's closing activities. The whole school poured into the gymnasium and sat on the floor in front of the stage, silent. Teachers closed every window and door, every vent, and drew the curtains. This was to keep out any members of the media who might decide to nose around the building, or perhaps hide in the woods nearby and zoom in with a telescopic lens. With no air conditioning, we quickly began to bake in the muggy gym as the principal told the students somberly about what had happened to their classmate. In the back of the room, one teacher hugged a girl who sobbed continuously into a towel.

When the principal finished, it was my turn to go on stage and say my farewell speech in Japanese. I was already fighting tears when I went up on stage. In my hand I held an abbreviated version of my original speech, in which I would have encouraged the students not to be afraid to take risks, and to try doing something even if it makes them scared. That morning I'd shortened it to some generic thank yous and goodbyes. A few lines in I started to break down and then just cried through the rest of it. I'd always thought that it might be difficult for me to make it through my speech without getting emotional, but under the circumstances I just felt like falling apart.

After my speech, the president of student council gave me some flowers and a parting gift, and delivered a goodbye speech to me in English, which he'd memorized. I remember being surprised and impressed when he began speaking in English to me in front of the whole school, and very proud of him.

The ceremony ended after that and the students got to skip their standard school cleaning duties and go home. I think there were some counselors there to help students who were upset, and obviously the other teachers had their hands full supporting the students.

Once the school had emptied out, I wandered the hallways. Nobody had told me where the student had jumped from, but I wondered where and I was reluctant to ask because I didn't want to upset anyone. Outside in the back courtyard I found an older woman alone with a bucket, mopping a spot on the sidewalk. She greeted me with a smile and began speaking to me in Japanese, talked about my speech. In a lull in the conversation she stopped and said some things I didn't understand. Then she pointed to the fourth-floor window above her head. That was enough.

There was nothing there on that patch of brick sidewalk. No flowers, no candles, no notes or teddy bears. Nothing. Just an old woman mopping up any trace. I walked back inside and up the stairs to the fourth floor, peeked through the window in the door to the classroom where the woman had pointed. The room was dark. The curtain was drawn across the window in the middle of the room, and a lonely vase of lilies sat on the desk in front of it.

The school was empty, and I just felt heart broken. Shouldn't more be done to acknowledge what happened, some outpouring of sadness and love for this boy? Back at my desk I spent the rest of the day tinkering and crying. Even before any of this happened, it had already been an emotionally taxing week saying goodbye to one of my weekly conversation partners and struggling to write a meaningful speech that I'd be able to deliver in Japanese. I felt completely wrung out.

I thought about our student constantly for the next few days. In my mind I replayed what must have happened to him, and couldn't believe it was real. My heart ached for the student and for his classmates outside who witnessed his fall. And for his father and his teacher. I wondered why. I couldn't help but feel like every single person in the school held just a tiny sliver of responsibility for what happened. What if a smile and a kind word from any one of us that day might have been enough to change everything? I know that thinking that way probably isn't healthy, but still. What if?

It all felt like a really bad dream. I kept feeling like on Monday I'd go back to school and the boy would be there. We'd get to find out what was wrong and why this happened, and he would be there. But then you realize that of course he won't be there, and this is final. And that's what's so upsetting.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Big 3-Oh

Today was a lazy, rainy Sunday — and my 30th birthday. Woooo-eeee! We enjoyed a low-key celebration at the house, doing some writing and watching movies. Joe made a cake and put every candle left in the cupboard on it. Can't say I'm broken up about bidding my 20s adieu. My 20s were a helluva ride but now it's time to bring on the 30s!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

English education in Japan: If you can't say anything right...

I've been teaching in Japan for three years now, and by and large my classes are a pleasure. In addition to my classes, students have other lessons with Japanese teachers who teach them the grammar and mechanics of the English language. Those teachers are the unlucky ones, teaching the kids all the necessary boring stuff. I'm the lucky one — my classes are the ones where the kids actually get the chance to use what they've learned — to finally speak instead of just listen.

This can be a lot of fun! And... it can also be terribly painful.

Classroom management in Japan was a real adjustment for me. The expectations for student behavior in the classroom are very different from the U.S. and weren't immediately clear to me.

First off, you should know that the standard Japanese class has 40 students. This I'm sure would make American teachers choke on their coffee, given how much noise they make about having even 30 students in a class. All the students are divided up into homeroom classes, and they take nearly every class with the same cohort of kids.

Luckily for me, however, each class is divided in half for English lessons, so I teach only 20 kids at a time. Over the course my time here, I've been tasked with planning lessons ranging anywhere from 35 to 65 minutes.

My very first lessons were kind of a trial by fire where I got a glimpse into the challenges that lay ahead for me as an English teacher. Essentially, I'd been told to give an introduction of myself, showing pictures and explaining (very slowly) where I was from, some personal details, my hobbies, whatever. Then students would have a chance to ask me some questions. Picturing how this kind of lesson would have been received by American students meeting a foreigner from a strange place for the first time, I was fully prepared to field an onslaught of questions from a bunch of bright-eyed curious youngsters.

Except that when the question period came, repeatedly I was greeted with only a bunch of stares. Nobody had questions? Really?!...

Well, no, not really. The kids were full of questions, I have no doubt. But they just didn't know how to ask them. Or they were too afraid to ask them.

You know that old adage "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"? For the Japanese, the philosophy goes more like, "If you can't say anything right, don't say anything at all." The problem is the students know their English isn't perfect, and rather than speak up and make a mistake, they'd rather remain silent.

They're also simply not used to speaking up in class at all. I remember one time I was reviewing the names of places on a map before doing an activity on giving directions. I pointed to the park on a map and asked them the English word for it. Silence. Four years of English education under their belts and no one can manage to say the word "park"? Come on! Sometimes this can be really frustrating.

I can think of no better example of this phenomenon than the recitation assignment all my sophomores were given last year. They were made to memorize a passage from their textbook and recite it in front of class. These recitations took one to two minutes. This was a challenging task for the kids, as I'm sure you can understand. It probably would have been hard enough to do this kind of public speaking task in Japanese, let alone English.

So a lot of kids got up in front of class, began doing their thing and inevitably hit a point where they had a hard time remembering the next line. They'd stand there nervously, eyes squeezed shut, biting their lip, desperately trying to will the words into their memory. I felt bad for them.

The thing is, I know that if American kids had to do an assignment like this, it would be only a matter of time before some clown, recognizing the futility of recalling the words, would just start making stuff up. He'd say something ridiculous, the entire class would laugh, everyone would relax a bit and remind themselves of the absurdity of the task.

Three hundred and twenty Japanese students gave me their recitations. Lots of kids hit a point where they just couldn't remember it anymore, and stood there silently for the next minute and a half until their time was up. Not one attempted to ham it up. No one winged it and tried to just make something up that sort of half-resembled the actual script. I wonder if the thought even occurred to them. Honestly, after listening to days of endless droning about Charlie Brown buttering toast, I would have happily handed a high score to any kid who deviated even slightly from the script in the name of a laugh.

But it went down the way it did because in the Japanese mind, it's better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. It's better to have forgotten the script than to give the appearance of not knowing it, or of having memorized the wrong thing.

In this way, I have to admire my Japanese students. They are so earnest, so dedicated. They take their studies seriously. A lot of American students could stand to take a cue from them.

At the same time, it's this drive for perfection that also holds them back. I always tell my students, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes!" Nobody expects them to be perfect — except themselves! Getting them to overcome this fear is my biggest challenge as a teacher.

Part of the problem is that the Japanese school system enables this reluctance to take risks. You might think, "Oh, no problem, kids won't volunteer to answer questions in class? Then just pick someone to do it." But it's not that easy. In Japan, if a student isn't sure of an answer, there is no expectation that he'll try to answer anyway. He can simply deflect the question by saying "Pass". A lot of them don't even do that, though. I will pick certain students to answer something, and they will simply not respond at all. They will just sit there, silent. I didn't understand this was how it works when I first started teaching. A Japanese teacher would have recognized that a student didn't know the answer and simply moved on. But I just stood there, waiting for an answer. Waiting for some kind of recognition that I even just spoke to them. There'd be a terrible awkward silence where they'd stare down at their desk and I'd wonder if they were just trying to think of the answer or what. When they said nothing, inside I was very irritated. Their silence seemed terribly insubordinate. This wouldn't be tolerated in America.

Once I understood the cultural difference, I stopped being upset by this behavior. But it does sometimes present a challenge teaching the type of interactive lessons I'm tasked with doing, where students are expected to speak, listen, understand and respond.

My school doesn't allow teachers to give out candy as incentives. Instead, I followed in the footsteps of my predecessor and award the kids stamps each time they speak in class, whether they say the right thing or not. Students know that the participation stamps they accumulate during the semester factor into their final grade. Initially the problem with this was that the head English teacher wouldn't tell me, much less the students, exactly how the stamps would be factored into their final grade. It seemed like they didn't want to place a value on the participation stamps until the end of the semester when they could see how all the kids' grades were shaping up. Consequently, the motivating power of the stamps was severely diminished. (Well, it's that and the fact that grades just don't matter as much here. Kids know that as long as they score well on their college entrance exams, mediocre grades won't hurt them.)

Since I couldn't entice my students with candy, and it didn't work so well making vague promises about the participation points boosting their grade, I turned to all-out bribery. When Joe and I visited home last year, I returned with a bag stuffed full of little souvenirs — pennies, postage stamps, English pins with edgy messages, buckeyes, miniature American flags, Obama campaign stickers, and the mother lode — Obama campaign buttons I ordered from Democratic Stuff, a company in Greenville, Ohio, that produces campaign products. I showed the stuff to the students and told them that the five students from each class with the most participation points at the end of the semester could choose a prize. When I gave those prizes out, the kids went absolutely bonkers over the Obama buttons. Finally I'd found a successful motivator! A lot of them may not care about learning English, but they care about winning some Obama memorabilia.

I suppose if I did that in the U.S. that'd make me a "Socialist!", but here it just makes me popular.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hell hath no fury like a Japanese baseball coach

I remember when Joe and I were finally notified of the names of our schools before we moved to Japan. I excitedly typed my school's name into Google and found its website. Of course the site was all in Japanese, so I hit the Google translation button to get an idea of what it said. The translation function does a supremely lousy job of translating things, but you can still get a sense of what is said. Well, the translated version of the page described my school as a "military preparatory school" (it's not). We got a good laugh out of that when Joe remarked, "You're going to be barking at those Japanese kids to drop and give you 20!" Turns out, there was a grain of truth to that. Though it's not me ordering the push-ups — it's one of the other teachers.

Discipline in Japanese schools is a lot different from the U.S. On the surface there appears to be a lot less discipline in the classroom, and teachers tolerate more misbehavior than in American schools. This really surprised me when I started teaching here.

The thing is, the Japanese are very non-confrontational people. Often, teachers' approach is to simply ignore what little misbehavior goes on. Lucky for me, most of my students are very well behaved. Being at a relatively high academic high school, these kids are serious about their studies and feel motivated to learn. There's a famous saying in Japan: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Social pressure keeps kids in line pretty well, and if they do get out of line their peers will bully them into submission. This makes for a class of kids trying very hard to conform rather than cause a disruption and call attention to themselves.

Most of the time students' indiscretions amount to ignoring the teacher and talking in class — they're no different from American teenagers in that way. Pretty minor stuff. I've had to deal with students typing English obscenities into their electronic translators and hitting the button to make the device say it out loud in class, and I've had to put up with obnoxious baseball players who want to bully the class into non-participation to cover up their deficiencies. Irritating, yes, but these situations are the exception, not the rule.

That's not the case in other lower academic schools, though. I have heard horror stories from other JETs about students pulling out cell phones and making calls in class, standing up and simply walking out the door in the middle of a lesson, and even one girl going so far as to plug in a curling iron to fix her hair during class (apparently right after P.E. period). Sometimes all the kids talk and simply ignore the teacher, who pretends it's not happening and just goes on with the futile lesson anyway.

In America, this sort of stuff would get you sent to the principal's office, or at least earn you a detention. But it seems that often times these behaviors are ignored in Japan. Kids are not kicked out of class. I have never heard of anyone being sent to the principal's office. High school is not compulsory, and until just recently, students actually had to pay tuition — around $100 a month — to attend public high school, so perhaps educators felt they couldn't really bounce a kid from class?

This is not to say there are no disciplinary measures. There are. There are a couple teachers who share the honor of being the official disciplinarians at my school. If a student acts up and ticks off his teacher, the teacher sends him to the disciplinarian during lunch or after school for a good dressing down. And this is where the disciplinary approach diverges wildly from America.

Instead of getting sent to the principal's office, naughty Japanese students at my school get sent to the baseball coach. Now I know I said before that the Japanese are very non-confrontational people. So when students are confronted, when they are actually yelled at, it sends a strong message — You really effed up, kid. It's embarrassing. And that's exactly what this teacher does.

He yells. I mean, he doesn't just lecture kind of angrily, he really lets him have it. The offender — usually a boy, I don't know if I can recall ever seeing a girl get into trouble — stands mute while the teacher works himself up into a screaming, red-faced fury. Either the boy wears an expression of defiant indifference, which only seems to prompt louder yelling, or he looks crestfallen as he tries to choke back tears. Sometimes, they do cry. While this teacher is going ballistic, all the other teachers in the office stare straight ahead, hunched over their keyboards as though nothing is happening. At times this teacher has thrown chairs. One time he even swept a heavy radio off the desk and it went crashing to the floor, though I'm not exactly sure if that was intentional considering that's kind of an expensive thing. It scared the bejesus out of me though because my desk was right in front of his at the time. And yes, there have even been times when I've seen him order kids to the floor to do push ups. I think those might have been his baseball players.

I was shocked the first time I saw this episode unfold. I had never seen any teacher act that way before, and I really didn't know what to think. He was throwing chairs and raving, and everyone else was just going about their normal business. I thought about telling him to calm down a bit, but I was scared to interfere. I always feel so bad for the students who endure this treatment. It makes me want to do something to defuse the situation and comfort them a bit, like covertly sneak a piece of chocolate into their palm as they leave the office or something. But I don't. One time I took pity and handed a box of tissues to a poor boy who was sobbing and wiping his eyes repeatedly on his shirt sleeve. I feel that's about all I can do.

After the dressing down is complete, the boys leave the office and I look at the teacher quizzically. The angry expression usually lifts from his face and he chuckles a bit. It's not that he gets a kick out of publicly humiliating students, but he seems a shade embarrassed about the crazy scene he just made. Because usually he's really not angry. He just pretends to be. And he is a very convincing actor.

Sometimes I ask what the kids did to earn this punishment. One kid got in trouble for repeatedly skipping school. Another kid cut class and hid in the bathroom to avoid taking a test. And one boy caught it for not telling the baseball coach he'd earned some failing grades, even though they'd been told they had to report any under-performance to the coach. Of course the coach knew about the bad grades, but the kid was being punished for being too scared to own up to his mistakes and face the consequences.

I have conflicting feelings about this "tough love" method of discipline. On one hand, I feel like heaping abuse on students and being physically threatening is really inappropriate. This is the very reason American schools no longer paddle rule-breakers, isn't it? Do we want them emulating that disciplinarian's behavior someday, perhaps on their own kids? Do we want to send the message that they somehow deserve less respect than us? On the other hand, well... It seems to work. The kids behave. I mean, I think my kids are just good kids in the first place, but still, American detention doesn't sound nearly as horrible as the public shaming these kids get. It seems like a good deterrent. I guess it's not so far off from the old debate of whether "time outs" are preferable to simply spanking a kid. The Japanese kids aren't being physically beaten, but they are being humiliated almost in the same manner as spanking. And the result is that I never see the kind of contempt and defiance I have witnessed American students throw at their teachers. There is a respect for authority that is sometimes absent in America. Makes you wonder if the Japanese could teach us a thing or two.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How much for that doggy in the window?

How can you resist a face like this?

Look at those round black eyes. That button nose. That soft snow white fur.

Japanese people see this and go ga-ga. Hypnotized by cuteness, they open their wallets, turn them upside down and shake. Money blows away.

So it goes when it comes to pets in Japan. Japan is world famous for its culture of cuteness, and Lord knows there's nothing cuter than puppies.

Take me home with yooooou!

Pet stores here are filled with purebred animals fetching top dollar. I simply could not believe it the first time I went in to a Japanese pet store and saw that all the animals cost several hundred dollars, and many well over $1,000.

Even the cats!

For a while I had a sort of obsession with an orange flat-faced Exotic cat I dubbed "Smooshy." Smooshy's price tag was 98,000 yen — $980 or so. Every time I went to the Fuji Grand department store, I'd stop in to pay Smooshy a visit. I swear that cat was there for three months. Cooped up in that cage all that time. I always wondered when there'd be a Smooshy sale, since obviously no one wanted to pay so much for that cat. But there was never a Smooshy sale, and then one day Smooshy was gone. I wondered if someone finally adopted her or if she fell victim to a darker fate.

I read a Reuters article a while back about how Japanese people usually don't adopt animals from pet shelters. There's a very strong "brand name" mentality here where people really don't tend to buy generic or used goods, and I think that extends to animals as well. Who wants to save some throw-away mutt when you can have a purebred one from the pet shop? That makes me sad.

Japan has had a declining birthrate for years, which is one of the country's major social dilemmas. It seems that rather than have children a lot of people just adopt dogs instead. This Japan Times article says that since 2003, there have been more pets than children under age 16 in Japan. Last year there were 6 million more pets than children.

People really do treat the dogs like children, too. Japanese pet stores have an unbelievable selection of dog outfits, and it seems like nearly every dog I see out for a walk is wearing a shirt. Given the importance the Japanese place on fashion and personal appearance, perhaps this isn't too surprising.

I mean check out some of these outfits:

Every dog's gotta have a little black dress!

Yes, it's a yukata! For a dog!

Obligatory Engrish T-shirt


For some I think the dogs become just an accessory as part of their overall fashion statement.

There are even special cakes, muffins, and other sweets for these pooches.

Granted, Americans have been known to overindulge their pets, too. No doubt. When I worked for the newspaper I actually featured a lady who opened up a pet spa offering pet massage. You could get your dog groomed there using special fancy pants aroma therapy shampoos. Another lady I interviewed started her own homemade gourmet dog biscuit shop. So it's not just the Japanese. But, I do think that as a whole, Japanese pets are a lot more spoiled.

But I guess when you're paying that much for a pup, you're gonna treat it like royalty.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A walk around Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum

Watched stopped at 8:15 a.m. — the moment the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima.

Last week my sister-in-law Jenny and her friend came to visit us, so we took them around to all the big tourist sites. Of course they couldn't come to Hiroshima without visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, and though I've seen it before, I've never blogged about it, so I decided to go with them and shoot a few pictures.

The museum is a fascinating but depressing place filled with information about World War II history, the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and artifacts from the bomb's aftermath.

There are a few dioramas depicting the city before and after the bomb, including this one showing where the bomb exploded, decimating the entire landscape. Only a few skeletal buildings remained.

One of those was the Atomic Bomb Dome, almost directly beneath the blast, pictured here at center. At the time, it was a government building. Today it remains as a memorial to the bomb.

The bomb obliterated pretty much everything within a two-mile radius. Joe and I live about 4.7 miles from the hypocenter of the bomb (as the crow flies), far enough away that the buildings in our neighborhood wouldn't have been destroyed, though our area was hit with black rain. Actually, I'm not sure how developed our part of the city was at that time, since the museum stated that 90 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed or burned beyond repair.

To me, the most unforgettable parts of the museum are the second-floor exhibits illustrating the destruction. There are lots of pictures and stories about victims and their personal belongings — school children's tattered uniforms and things like that. Some of these things are truly heartwrenching to see. One of the more famous items is this:

A 3-year-old boy was riding this tricycle in front of his house when the bomb hit. He was badly burned and died that night. His father, feeling his son was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home, and thinking he could still play with the tricycle, buried his son with the tricycle in his backyard. Forty years later, he dug up the boy's remains to transfer them to the family grave, and donated the tricycle to the museum.

Perhaps the most stomach-turning exhibit confronts visitors as they round the corner into a new room. Inside an exhibit showing the aftermath of the bomb, we see wax figures of victims holding out their arms, skin melting off. This is a common image I've heard recounted many times by survivors of the bomb and in books. I remember one hibakusha (bomb survivor) explaining how she witnessed lines of burned victims shuffling down the street, holding out their arms like zombies, begging for water.

The bomb's fury sent shards of glass flying through the air with such force that they embedded in concrete.

The heat warped steel and melted glass.

One surprise I encountered in the museum when I went through last November with Diane and Paul was an actual mention of Springfield, Ohio, believe it or not. There is a section about a project started in September 2007 to display an atomic bomb exhibition in 101 U.S. cities, and one of them is Springfield. I imagine this was connected in some way to Wittenberg University since it has such a great East Asian Studies program.

There are all sorts of books out there if you are interested in learning more about the bombing. I'm not the type of person to read a pile of history books, but actually one of the books I can recommend for those interested in learning more about the bombing is a 10-volume graphic novel called Barefoot Gen: The Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. It was written by Keiji Nakazawa, a bomb survivor. I'm definitely no expert on writing book reviews, but I just wrote one for the Wide Island View. Actually it's not so much a review as just a piece urging people to check these books out. And you should — they're incredible.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Let's play "Find the Foreigner"!

Joe came home the other day with a print of his school's staff photo for the yearbook, and as soon as I saw it I started to laugh. He's like a giant gorilla next to all his Japanese colleagues. Check it out. (Click it to see a bigger version.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Macau: High rollin'... for a moment

Macau's MGM Casino

While in Hong Kong, we took a day trip to Macau, which is kind of like the Las Vegas of the East. Macau, like Hong Kong, is a special administrative region of China and essentially functions as its own country. It was a Portuguese colony up until it was handed back to China in 1999 under an agreement that it would remain autonomous for the next 50 years.

Now Macau's bread and butter is gambling. I've never been to Las Vegas, or stepped foot in a casino, so this was a first for me. After a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, we got off the boat and directly onto a shuttle bus that took us right to the heart of the casino area, where there were all sorts of glitzy looking buildings.

Is that a Rolls Royce?

We walked around a couple of these places and the opulence blew me away. Chandeliers, flowers, water fountains, shiny everything. It all oozed money, money, MUH-NAY!

Joe and I agreed that he could play with $100 at the blackjack tables. Once it was gone though, he had to walk away. He chose to take his chances at the Wynn casino, seen here during one of its mesmerizing water fountain displays.

I just about choked when I saw the minimum bets at the blackjack tables. There were one or two tables with a minimum $10 bet, but no one was budging from those tables, so after waiting around for a while Joe finally took a seat at a table with a $20 minimum.

Five minutes later, the money was gone. He got up and walked away. Neither of us was really upset — I assumed we'd never see that money again, and I think he did too — though I felt a little stunned about how suddenly it evaporated. A hundred bucks. That'd've been a helluva nice dinner. Of course it was tempting to plunk down some more bills and play a little longer, but you know the next $100 would probably disappear just as quickly as the first.

Ah well. It was a nice experience anyway.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hong Kong: The street markets

Residents of Hong Kong's goldfish market

Out of all the sightseeing we did in Hong Kong, my favorite places were decidedly low key, and free: the street markets scattered throughout the city. In our time there we made it to a goldfish market, flower market, songbird market, jade market and some random fish, fruit or clothing markets we passed along the way.

The goldfish market consisted of a long street of fish shop after fish shop selling goldfish (of course), a variety of other fish, lizards and baby turtles. Some shops pre-bagged the goldfish and hung them up on the wall, making for some nice window shopping.

For goldfish on the go

Look at these fat prickly guys!

We went through the goldfish market on the way to the songbird market, a small park where we found lots and lots of birds in little orange cages, and some in those charming kind of hanging cages with the rounded tops.

This guy was feeding the birds grubs with some chopsticks. I thought that was cute.

The bird garden was interesting, though I can't say I'm a big fan of birds in cages. We didn't stick around too long as all those birds gathered in one place also just felt kinda dirty.

My favorite market of all was one that wasn't one listed in any of the tourist brochures, though, and that was just a standard food market located in an old building off a busy street. Peering into the wide open first floor I spied some fresh fish and decided to poke my nose in and see what else was in there.

It wasn't long before my jaw was hanging open.

This was not just fresh fish. Ooooh no. This was Fresh Fish. Exhibit A:

These suckers are still alive. How do I know?

Because they were sliced open and we could see their hearts still beating, that's how!

More fish:

This was just the beginning. Not only was this place a fish market, but it was also a meat market, with butchers right there slicing up huge hunks of meat — and not letting anything go to waste.

Don't miss the goods in the background here, either.

Ox tail? Or cat toy?

One section of the market housed a bunch of live chickens. We watched as a worker removed one from the cage, held it just so and slit its throat before dumping it into a large funnel to drain out the blood. I grew up in Ohio so I've been around my share of livestock, but this was something I'd never seen before and it left me a bit stunned.

Last but not least... ever seen these in your local grocer's deli?

I looked around for a display of large black cauldrons, but alas there were none.

Toads, brains, fish hearts and chickens with their heads cut off... without question the most unforgettable part of Hong Kong.