Sunday, October 31, 2004

Night and Day

The following post is rather long, but I hope another enjoyable one. So I wanted to mention that below this post are two pictures of me and my kids from a Halloween parade we had at one of my elementary schools. And another shorter post about the recent earthquake in Japan.

This past week was a perfect example of the day and night nature of my current situation.

As it turned out, Tuesday was a half day. There were various teaching meetings scheduled for all the staff at my Jr. High, so the kids only had to come to school for the first 3 periods and then they got to go home at 11:45. There was no school lunch that day, as many of the teachers traveled to other schools to attend various meetings. Some teachers did stay and ordered in. All this would be fine, except for the small fact that NO ONE said anything to me about it. I was totally in the dark, until Hama-sensei, the very nice JTE that sits next to me in the staff room, asked me on Monday afternoon what I was going to do for lunch the next day. My perplexed expression must have given her a clue that I had no idea why I wouldn’t be eating school lunch as usual. So she explained that all the English teachers were going to another high school for a meeting. Apparently I wasn’t included, but that might have to do more with the fact that the meeting would have been in Japanese than the fact that they didn’t “want” me there. I don’t have a car so I can’t drive myself to these events. I guess I was supposed to sit at my desk for 4 hours with NOTHING to do and no students to teach, but I decided that wasn’t going to happen. I told Kyoto-sensei (the vice-principal) that I was going to the BoE, where I go from time to time to check in with my supervisor. He nodded and off I went. I checked in, made some copies that I had to make and then at about 12:30 I went home. I ate some lunch and had a nap and that was my Tuesday. No classes in the morning and home for lunch and a rest in the afternoon. I got paid for a full day, so I’m not complaining, but not only was it boring, it was also indicative of how out of the loop I am unless someone thinks to clue me in. The daily schedule changes here all the time and while I’m sure all the teachers discuss these changes at the morning meeting I attend every day, I can’t understand 80% of what is said, since it’s entirely in Japanese. Just today, lunch was scheduled early at 12:20, since the classes were adjusted to make room for EVERY class in the school to practice their songs that each class is going to sing at a special cultural assembly next week. I was playing softball with the special needs kids and some other teachers, so they let me know it was lunch time and we headed in. Not knowing what’s going on half the time puts you permanently off balance - it’s a weird feeling that’s taken me more time to get used to than any “culture shock” I was warned about.


All was redeemed by Wednesday.
I had a GREAT day Wednesday and was so busy I couldn’t see straight by the end of the day. My day started with classes at nearby Taisha elementary school. I was supposed to participate in a Halloween parade with the 5th graders and then have two classes with the 1st graders. It was really fun and all the kids dressed up in costumes and we went around the school to each classroom saying “Trick or Treat!” and then went to the staff room where all the kids got candy from some of the teachers. One of the 5th grade teachers had a digital camera so I hope to post some pics on this page if I can figure out how to do it.
My Halloween “presentation” was lame though, as I don’t really have any supplies - but my costume was kicking. I made it for a play I did back in High School in 1986. I was Merlin. But none of the kids know who Merlin is, so they all thought I was Dumbledore-sensei, the headmaster in the Harry Potter films.

After elementary classes ended I raced backed to my Jr. High by 12:40, ate some bread (that comes with this ingenious device that you crack open and equal amounts of jam and butter come out the slots onto your bread) and had some milk. I’m losing a bunch of weight here just cuz I eat so little at lunch as it often has fish or fish elements, so all I eat is bread or rice or fruit. Of course, I’m starving by the time I get home, but I’ve adjusted to it a little bit by now and it’s not so bad.
At 1:00, I was supposed to debut my radio show (Radio E-I-G-O), but the sensei in charge of the lunch time music had failed to inform the students who run the audio equipment that I was coming. So I struggled to explain that I was supposed to take over the microphone and then play songs on this CD I had with me. Another female student showed up who speaks better English and we worked it out, so at 1:05 I was “on the air.” All went well, except that I was told by some of the teachers later that they could hear my voice just fine, but the volume on the songs was way too low and you could barely hear them. Oh well - I had fun and will look forward to doing the show every Wednesday.
5th period I taught one class at the Jr. High. Then I had to get ready for a teacher’s meeting that I was leading. A bunch of the elementary teachers from the 5 schools I visit were all gathering in Taisha at 3:30 for a small meeting where I was supposed to teach them handy “classroom” English and some new American games. Well, it’s been quite a few years since I have played games with elementary school kids, but I hit the net and looked in some books left behind by my predecessors and came up with some cool games. One of the teachers at the meeting remembered from my visit to his school that I like Pepsi, so he brought me 3 small bottles to drink while all the other teachers drank coffee. That was a great meeting, and I enjoyed being in control for once. We had a lot of fun playing “Heads Up, 7 Up” and “Island Hopping.” And if any other ALTs are reading this I found a good web site with pages of classroom English that is also translated into Japanese. You can find the Adobe PDF file HERE.

The meeting ended at about 5:15 and I headed home for some quick dinner before my night activity. I bought some frozen penne pasta for the first time last week, but I can’t read the cooking instructions, so I was unsure whether to cook the small container in my range on microwave setting or conventional oven setting. I can read the kanji for “minutes,” so I knew how long to cook it for, but not how to cook it. I tried a combination of both and it tasted OK, so I must have done all right. I dressed up a bit and headed back to the music hall by the BoE to attend a student brass band concert at 6:30. The concert was great, and the last one to include the 9th graders, who graduate in April next year. It went to about 8:30pm and then I waited in the lobby to congratulate the Music teacher for a job well done. We shook hands, I said “Omedeto Gozaimasu” (congratulations) and I headed for the exit. Many of my Jr. High kids were in the lobby as well, waiting for friends, and I chatted briefly with a few brave enough to approach me or say something to me in English. The kids wear their school uniforms EVERYWHERE, and I don’t think I’ve seen any of my Jr. High students in “civilian” clothes yet.

I scootered home and plopped down on the couch, too tired to prepare anything else to eat. I tried to make it through the 10pm News that’s simulcast in English, but my eyes kept closing, so I trundled off to bed, really satisfied and happy that I’d had such a good day. Days like Wednesday make up for a bunch of the days when I don’t feel like I’m having much of an impact. Days like Wednesday are why I signed up for JET. I hope I get to have many more days like Wednesday in the weeks to come.


2nd class of 5th graders at Taisha Elementary

2nd class of 5th graders at Taisha Elementary
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

5th graders and me - Taisha Elementary

5th graders and me - Taisha Elementary
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

Two pics of me and my 5th graders from my nearest elementary school. Most of their costumes consisted of black trash bags with drawings on them. But you can't go to the store and buy a costume, so I thought they all did a good job.

The recent Niigata earthquake

I've had a few emails and one phone call from my mother asking whether I was affected by the recent devastating earthquakes that have rocked northern Honshu, the main island of Japan.

In short, NO - I didn't even feel the quakes that day. They happened in a prefecture far from mine. It's the equivalent if the quakes had happened in the Bay Area of California and I was living in Los Angeles, distance-wise.

Click HERE to see a simple map of Japan. This map is divided into prefectures, which are kinda likes states in the United States. Niigata (the epicenter of the quakes) is #15 on this map, and Shimane (my prefecture) is #32. Hard to read distance on this map, but Tokyo, which is south-east of Niigata (and in prefecture #13 on this map), is about 6 hours away from Shimane, so you get an idea.

I can't help but think that there are many JETs like myself who now might be homeless and many are certainly facing an uncertain future because over 90 schools in Niigata are still closed as of today, one week after the quakes. Many people are living in shelters and even in their cars out of fear of aftershocks or because their homes are unsafe or destroyed, and it's getting colder up north and is supposed to rain this week, so my best hopes go out to them.

Thanks to everyone who sent messages of concern. I appreciate it. But I'm fine and looking forward to a hectic but enjoyable November. Hope all is well where you are.


Sunday, October 24, 2004

Confusion, Frustration and a dollop of Satisfaction

This past week contained confusion, frustration and satisfaction in equal measure. As I mentioned in a previous post, I got to visit one of my Elementary schools for the first time this week. Usagi primary school is unique in that it has only 6 students. So I was supposed to take a bus to get there, as Usagi is located in the mountains above Taisha, but when I attempted to find out what time the bus left Taisha, there was some confusion in my staff room and no one could figure it out apparently. The frustration of the language barrier really grates at times like this - trying to communicate with someone on the staff about something so simple becomes really tough and having to rely on others for every little thing at times is tough for me to adjust to. So it was decided that Kobayashi-san, the school engineer and jack-of-all-trades, would drive me to the school Tuesday morning. It was raining that morning as we set out at 8:10am. After climbing up some very narrow and twisty roads, we arrived at the school about 30 minutes later. I was ushered into the small staff room after changing into my indoor slippers (I bring my own with me so I don’t have to cram my feet into the visitor sandals all the schools have).

I was offered Japanese green tea, which is not a favorite of mine, but politeness dictates that I accept and sip occasionally. Coffee is always offered as well, but I really don’t like coffee, and water is not something they have at the ready like we do in the states. I sat as Kobayashi-san and a woman who might have been the school principal chatted about me and the weather. They were old friends apparently. After a few minutes, a young, male teacher came in the room and bowed and introduced himself. Turns out he’s in charge of the 2 older students. Later on I met the slightly older, female teacher who’s in charge of the 4 younger kids. There is also a kindergarten class with two 5-year-old girls, both younger sisters of another student.

Taru-san (the male teacher) explained the game plan for my stay. I was to be there for 3 periods and leave at 12:02 on the bus that goes back to Taisha. He took me to the gym and had me wait until the kids all shouted “Jason sensei” and then I entered the gym to applause and cheers. OK, cheers from just 8 people, but it was a nice start to the day nonetheless. So we started out with easy greetings and my self introduction speech, followed by questions from the kids and then some easy games, like concentration with picture cards. I also played the memory game I use to learn their names where I say we’re all taking a trip and you can take one thing that starts with the same letter as your first name. I used to say, “My name is Jason and I’m taking jellybeans,” but many of the kids have never eaten jellybeans and didn’t know what I was talking about, so now I say I’m taking a jacket. So I learned all the kids names: 4 boys, one each in 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th grades and two girls, in 1st and 2nd grade.

Then it was time for me to hang with the older kids, meaning Yusuke (pronounced You-skay), the 6th grader, and Sho, the 5th grader. They have their own classroom, and their own teacher. They got to ask me more questions and I asked them some, and then we went thru a “day in the life” of Jason. They both speak fairly good English for their ages and Taru-san was also pretty good, which was a big relief. After that we went back to the gym and played frisbee (I always have one with me) and then I sat with the kindergarten girls as we watched the 6 students perform a traditional Japanese song and dance. They two older boys played a type of recorder/flute, the two girls played drums and the two younger boys did this stylized dance with a stick. After that is was rest time, so the teachers all gathered in the staff room and had coffee, and I had juice. We chatted as best we could and I ate some Japanese snacks.

Then we went to the music room and I got to watch more traditional performances. The kids were really talented, playing different types of drums and stringed instruments while the teachers played the piano or flute. During break they had all made me origami presents, which was cool. When it was about time to go, the woman I had met first offered to drive me to the bus stop as it was raining. As we left, all the kids came out and waved goodbye and shouted “see you” in English. Very cool. I had a great time there, and can’t wait to go back. I’m not scheduled to return until the end of November, but they invited me to a weekend festival they have in early November so I’ll do my best to attend. Got back to Taisha but the bus stops up at the Shrine, so I had to walk back to my Jr. High in the rain. Luckily I had my umbrella.

Wednesday was another typhoon day, so school ended early at 1:00. I was supposed to teach two classes of 2nd graders at the nearby Taisha primary school, during 2nd and 3rd period, but a call came in asking me to be at the school by 8:45, just before the start of 1st period. I went thinking they might be rescheduling me to an earlier time because of the approaching typhoon. I went upstairs with the homeroom teacher. I did my morning greetings to a rather uppity class, and then according to my lesson plan we were supposed to sing a song (“Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes”). But the Japanese teacher said no, next we would be learning about the phrase “how many?” I asked “Ni-nensei (2nd graders)?” and she said, no this was a 4th grade class. Well, I was scheduled to teach 2 4th grade classes the next day, so I hadn’t brought my 4th grade lesson plan with me. After some confusion we continued, but the class was not a good one. During a group game where all the kids are supposed to ask me to play “janken” (Rock/Paper/Scissors) and then ask me how many of something I have and vice versa, only the girls came up to me. The boys either ran around being disruptive or ignored me. The teacher seemed unable or unwilling to discipline them, so it was not a good start to my day. I tried to make a point at the end by handing out “Jason money” (American dollar bills photocopied with my picture or Batman or Darth Vader where George Washington would be) only to the girls and saying that next time everyone had to join in, but who knows if they understood my English rant. The teacher could see that I was a little upset, but all she could say was “sumimasen” (sorry) and all I could say was “OK” even though it really wasn’t.

I then taught a class of 2nd graders, like scheduled, and it was like night and day. They were all attentive and happy to see me and the teacher was totally prepared and everything went well. I gave “Jason money” to all of them and they were thrilled. We played “fruit basket” with pictures of fruits and vegetables and had a great time. After that I went down to the staff room and said my goodbyes thinking I was done for the day. But two of the teachers chased me out into the hall and asked me where I was going. I explained I was scheduled to teach two classes so I was going back to the Jr. High. But they explained that I was supposed to teach 4 classes that day and I wouldn’t have any classes tomorrow. Turns out that one of the 4th grade teachers wouldn’t be there Thursday, so they wanted me to do all 4 classes Wednesday. I was visibly upset at this unannounced change, but what could I do. I trotted off to my 3rd class, another class of 2nd graders. That went well too, and the kids had fun. The wind was really swirling around while we were in class, so we went back to the staff room before 4th period only to find out that they were sending the kids home due to the oncoming typhoon. So the teacher we had changed everything for never got me in her class after all. I went back to the Jr. High frustrated at the confusion and my inability to express my frustrations to any of the teachers and make them understand that they had to let me know if they wanted to alter my schedule.

When I got back to the Jr. High, another low point was waiting. All week I had been looking forward to lunch on Wednesday, because I was scheduled to start my English language radio show, where I would get to play Western music I liked and talk to the kids over the PA system. But because of the typhoon, the kids at the Jr. High were going home right after lunch, so my radio debut would have to wait 'til next week. :(

So it’s 1:00 and all the kids are heading home. You might think that the teachers would get to leave soon after, but you’d be wrong. We are required to stay until Kyoto-sensei (the vice principal) says we can leave or it’s 4:00. So I had to sit at my desk with nothing to do for 3 hours waiting for it to be 4pm. As I headed for the door to leave, it was pouring rain and very windy. One teacher told me it would be dangerous to ride my scooter home, but I assured her that I’d be OK. And even though I was leaving, almost all the other teachers stayed. No clubs or sports that day, but I guess they were waiting for Kyoto-sensei to give them the OK.

I’ve started helping a group of 5 female students prepare for an English recitation contest that takes place on November 13th. So no after-school Kendo right now, altho I did attend nighttime practice on Thursday night. The girls never came and got me Tuesday night to help them, so I sat at my desk and waited in vain until 5pm before I gave up and went home. But we practiced Thursday and Friday and they’re a talkative bunch of 9th graders, so it’s been fun.

Speaking of sitting at my desk, that’s all I did on Thursday. Since I didn’t have any Elementary visits, and none of my Jr. high teachers had asked me to join their classes that day, I literally did NOTHING all day until speech practice after school. Sure, i found things to do - like make audio cassettes for the girls in the speech contest with me reciting their selections, and I even watched a bit of the Yankees game and took a short nap in the upstairs English teachers room, that no one really uses during school hours. So on Friday, noticing that my sign up sheet was empty for both Thursday and Friday, the JTE that sits next to me, Hama-sensei, asked me if I was a little bored. Uh...duh! So she asked me to help her with two of her classes that day and then Moriyama-sensei asked me to help her with the special ed class 6th period. Now that’s more like it. And then Ishitobi-sensei wanted me for his 4th period “optional” English class (an elective where the kids CHOOSE to study English), which was the same period as one of Hama-sensei’s classes. So they fought over me a bit and Ishitobi won, since the optional class only meets once a week.

So after a disappointing mid week, Friday was a fun and active day.
Funny side note - I wore my black Levi’s jeans to school on Friday for the first time. At least 5 groups of kids came up to look at the tag and ask if they were Levi’s. One kid even asked me what my waist size was. I said I wasn’t sure in Japanese measurements, but when I said the size in American measurements, his eyes grew wide with astonishment. The kids in general are still amazed at how “ookii” (big) I am and how furry my arms are.

I’m typing this on Saturday night and it looks like it will be a mellow weekend. Today was gorgeous, with the type of weather I love - cool (50s or low 60s) and sunny with a slight breeze. I did some shopping and had a burger and fries at a local Burger chain restaurant called MOS Burger. It’s a really small burger, but tasty and a bit of a treat after all the rice and school lunch I eat all week. Tomorrow I’m off to Kendo practice at 10am and then I’ll have dinner with my friend and fellow JET, Rusty, who lives over in Izumo, which is about 15 minutes away by scooter.

Hope all is well where you are.


PS - the typhoon was pretty severe, but didn’t really affect the area of Japan I’m in. I’ve seen some ripple effects - like the price of vegetables and some fruits has skyrocketed, since many crops were flooded or washed away. I’m talking $10 for a head of lettuce. Fruit is always expensive ($5 for an apple - yes, a single apple and $19 for a small melon), but right now I’m only buying pre-cut pineapple and bananas.

Tonight there was an earthquake in another region of Japan that was also pretty severe, but I didn’t even feel it. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m in for a doozy of a natural disaster since I’ve been relatively unscathed so far. Let’s hope not.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Six Kids!!!

I just found out that one of my elementary schools (Shoogakkoo) in a mountain town called Usagi (about a 45 minute bus ride from here) has only 6 students! No, that's not a typo - the whole school only has 6 students and two teachers. So next Tuesday I'll set off at 7:30am, arrive about 8:15, walk to the school (or be greeted by the students at the bus stop, as has happened at my other shoogakkoo that requires a bus trip to reach) and then entertain 8 people for 4 hours with tales of my halcyon days in San Diego. They sent a fax with the lesson plan and didn't mention anywhere the small student body size - it was only as one of my Jr High JTEs was translating some of the kanji for me that she mentioned that the school only has 6 kids.

So they'll get a lot more one-on-one with Jeison-sensei than any of my other classes get. They mention in the fax that they want me to play an "American game" with them - not quite sure what I'll think of, but if anyone has any suggestions, let me know. Another ALT mentioned "Heads up, 7 Up" at a conference a few months back, but I can't remember how to play it. Anyone? Bueller? Heck, I had to sing B-I-N-G-O six times in the last two days and I can't remember the first verse in English, but I now know it in Japanese.

I get asked all kinds of fun questions after I do my jiko shookai (Self-introduction), but today I got a new one from a 1st grader. She wanted to know what size shirts I wear (maybe her way of asking how much I weigh?) and then asked what color pants are my favourite. At least that's what I could figure out between her and the 1st grade teacher, who spoke very little English.

Common questions:
How tall are you?
Are you married/do you have kids?
Do you have a girlfriend?
What is your favourite... (insert anything here, but most commonly food, movie, animal, color, sport, etc)
Do you like Japan?
Do you like Taisha?
Do you play a musical instrument?

One 5th grader asked me yesterday if I like Bush or Kerry, which was rather insightful considering his age. One 2nd grader asked me onetime if I had a "lover" - not quite sure how to anwswer that one except to simply say "no".

Yesterday I got to hand out fake money my predecessor had made using a one dollar bill and pokemon characters instead of Washington's face. Then we went over different types of food and how to say it in English. But I had to guess based on drawings done by each class of third graders. So I'm looking at some of these drawings and scratching my head and going - is that an orange, is that a peach, is it a tangerine? One of the kids had drawn what the third grade teacher assured me was "Soup stock" and another had drawn a "croquette." A dictionary was needed on some of the items. So then the kids all had to buy items from Jason-sensei's store, bringing up their money and saying "I want fish." It was too hard to explain the need for an article like a, an or the, so I got sentences like "I want pencil." Not the best, but not too bad. Some of the kids are painfully shy, especially with my big mug in their face saying in a loud voice, "Hi - what do you want?" which sounds abrupt and almost rude to an English speaker, but if I said "What would you like?" they got all thrown off. I let them keep the fake money, so there were smiles all around at the end.

At the end of the classes I'm often mobbed by 20 to 30 very small Japanese children who love to rub my hairy arms or push on my well padded belly or try to jump up by grabbing my shoulders just out of reach. What fun. :) But I actually have a great time overall at Shoogakkoo becuase the kids are all so "genki" which means energetic and excited. The 6th graders (roku-nensei) are more sedate, perhaps anticipating their transfer to the much more serious environs of Jr High just months away, but they still sang BINGO with me and asked questions and were generally a good group as well.

This is another instance where if you had asked me one year ago, when I didn't even know what the JET programme was, if I thought I'd be in Japan at this time the next year teaching 7-year-olds how to say "radish" and "persimmon" I would've looked at you like you had just eaten too much wasabi. Just goes to show that you never know where life is gonna take you, and how much fun you'll have when you arrive.

I'm off now to practice kendo, and later tonight I'm invited to a party for the new Kendo teacher and a farewell to the transferring Kendo teacher. The party costs 7000¥ (or about $70), but that's a topic for another entry.

Be good. And eat your fruits and vegetables. ;)


Sunday, October 10, 2004

vote, Vote, VOTE!

I don't have a front row seat to the circus that is coming up in America - namely the Presidential election. I feel a bit out of the loop, as I don't get much news here, as far as footage of the debates and such. So if anyone wants to email me their opinion of the debates, I'd love to hear more about the general feeling following these crucial last days of the campaign. I do get some snippets of footage on Japanese TV and articles in the English Language newspaper, The Daily Yomiuri, I get each day, but it doesn't seem like enough at times. Also, if anyone knows of any good websites where I could get internet streams of the debates that I could watch on my computer, then please leave a comment below with the url or email me.

Whatever your political persuasion, you must check out the two short cartoon song parodies featuring Bush and Kerry at - they are hilarious! I'm sure many of you have seen them already, but if you haven't, you'll have a good laugh at this whole mess.

Who came off better in the Cheney/Edwards debate? I didn't see any of that one. You could press hot pokers at my feet and you still couldn't make me vote for Bush/Cheney - which is part of the problem I think - so much of the country is already decided. What's staggering, to me at least, is the number of loyal Bush voters who see the past four years as a good time in America that warrants no change in leadership. What is interesting about being over here at this time is the perspective from other countries I'm getting. Not only do I see a different media take on all the events, but I get a different set of opinions from the Brits, Aussies, Canadians, etc who are my fellow JETs. If foreign countries were voting, Kerry would win instantly. And I can't find one person under 35 who supports Bush - at least not one that I've met while over here who would voice his or her support out loud.

Like I've said before, if Bush wins reelection, I may have to stay in Japan until 2008, so please make it safe for me to come home again sooner by voting for John Kerry.


Hello All,

I apologize for not updating sooner - I’ve been really busy and so tired in the evenings that I let my blog get a little stale. But it’s a long weekend this weekend and a typhoon in battering Japan at the moment, so I don’t think I’ll be doing much but hanging out in my aparto, so hopefully I’ll be able to add a few updates.

First, I recently sent an e-mail to my good friend, mentor and fellow teacher, Blaze, describing what my school is like and how my day is structured. I’ll borrow from that e-mail and add a few details to clue you in as to what I do here for all this tax-free money the Japanese government in paying me.

So here’s the missive I sent to Blaze, and I’ll add more at the end...

Right now I'm sitting in the teacher's room with about 3 or 4 other teachers who don't have to teach this period. All 25 teachers here at my base Jr. High share the same big staff room, which is easily accessible to the students. We all share one internet computer, although some of the teachers have laptops at their desks. They are six 50-minute classes here each day (with some exceptions) and today I am only participating in two, so it's a pretty easy day for me. Tomorrow, I have to teach at one of my Elementary schools in the morning (two classes), come back to the Jr. High, eat lunch, and then it's off to another Elementary to teach two more classes in the afternoon. I have the one base Jr. High with about 500 students in 3 grades here in my hometown of Taisha. I also am shared among 5 primary schools - three of which are local, and two that are farther away, so I have to take a bus to get to them. This saturday for instance I'm teaching a special class (to make up for missed classes due to the recent typhoons) on Halloween to 5th graders, where I'll do the "Hokey Pokey" and teach about carving a pumpkin and do a flash card game to introduce the new vocab. It's a whole lot of fun, but very tiring at times, especially if I do 3 or 4 classes like that back-to-back.

At the Jr. High, my classes are pretty full, with about 30-35 students in each one, and I always team teach with a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English). While I have run certain sections of a lesson by myself, the students simply don't know enough English and I don't know enough Japanese to be effective without the JTE there to help translate, etc.
In Elementary school, the teachers are not English teachers, and some speak very little English, so that just adds to the challenge.
I got very lucky (when compared to other JETs I've talked with) in regards to my 4 JTEs at the Jr. High. All are very eager and friendly and appreciate my efforts. While I'm certainly being underused right now, that will hopefully change as they become more confident in my abilities. One of my JTEs, the only man, is also the Kendo coach and a fairly stern teacher, but he seems to be warming up to me. The other 3 JTEs are all women from 30-40 who seem to enjoy my style and approach so far.

OK, I’m back. I should add that one huge difference teaching here in Japan is the celebrity status I enjoy. If I walk down the halls of my Jr. High, many of the kids yell “JASON-SENSEI” at me as I walk pass and I wave and smile a lot every time I leave the staff room. It can a bit disconcerting, but it can also certainly be a nice ego boost on days you’re a bit tired. The boys tend to mumble their “Hellos” as I walk past, and some say Ohayoo Gozaimasu or Konnichi wa (Japanese for Good Morning and Good Afternoon) instead of using English, but that’s fine right now. The girls usually tend to be a bit more vocal and I feel like a Backstreet Boy at times as they’ll shout “Hello Jason-sensei!” from across the quad or if they see me walking to the gym to practice Kendo.

Another amazing example happened just yesterday. I had to go to a local Elementary school (Araki) and teach a combined class of go-nensei (5th graders). So I had 68 10 or 11-year-olds watching my every move, and the class was also a combination period, so instead of the normal 50 minutes, I had to entertain/teach for 1 hour and 45 minutes. The kids were great though, very interested in my self-introduction speech about San Diego, my family, etc. Then they got to ask me questions - how tall am I, what is my favorite sport, my favorite food, do I like Japan, etc. Luckily, the 5th grade teacher was pretty good at translating, and my Japanese is getting better, so at times I don’t have to wait for the translation. We played a game called “fruit basket” involving cards with flags of various countries on them. The kids here love to get into groups and compete. And then at the end of the class, I had to shake all 68 hands and say goodbye or see ya or so long as each student departed. We had played a game involving meshi (name cards) earlier where they had to come up to me and say their name, nice to meet you, and what they like. “My name is Sato Takanaka. Nice to meet you. I like baseball.” Then we’d play the Japanese version of Rock/Paper/Scissors (incredibly popular here) and if I won they had to give me their handwritten card and if they won they got one of my cards. I had a line of kids waiting to challenge me and I actually ran out of cards, since my RPS skills are hardly up to snuff.
So as the kids left and shook my hand, many handed me their meshi with little notes written on them, and then one girl asked me to sign her meshi. I obliged, and then it turned into an impromptu autograph session. Each kid wanted me to sign something - their erasers, their pencil cases, or their notebook. How many teachers in America get asked for their autograph at the end of class? It was all very surreal. But so much fun. I do wonder what the Japanese teachers in some of my classes think of all the fuss I generate among their students. Japanese politeness will never let me know, but I am curious.

This post is getting pretty lengthy, but one more point about my special status before I go watch a DVD or something. The amount of bowing that happens in this country is AMAZING. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s one that happens to be true. Everyone bows all day in all kinds of situations. Repeated bowing at times that defies reason to this outside observer. It’d be like shaking someone’s hand and then grabbing it again and shaking it two or three more times as you greet each other and when you depart. And I’ve totally taken to doing it all the time too. I find myself bowing my head as I drive past pedestrians and every time I enter a room. Gas station attendents bow as you leave the pumps (they pump your gas for you here) and many store clerks bow as you enter their shop. The kids in school bow at the start of each class and at the end, and the kids in my Kendo club have to bow and say “shitsurei shimasu” (excuse me) every time they walk in front of me. I was at school assembly recently and an adult getting up to speak in front of the students has to bow to the other adults, climb onto the stage, bow at the empty stage, get behind the podium, bow to the assembled students (who in turn bow back) and then do all three bows again at the end of their speech. So I’ve gotten used to the bowing.

But the other day I was at a special nighttime Kendo practice they have for the community on one weeknight each month. Elementary kids into Kendo can come and practice against the Jr. High team, and then the adults spar at the end, and the Jr. High kids watch. Well I’ve been attending Kendo competitions and practices, trying to get a grasp on the sport, so some of the parents have started to recognize me. I’m sitting cross-legged on the gym floor, watching tiny little 7,8,9 and 10-year-olds hit much bigger Jr. High kids with bamboo swords, when a mother of one of the Jr. High kendo students comes over to me, kneels in front of me, bows so her nose is practically touching the floor, and says very respectfully, “Otsukaresama Deshita,” which loosely translated means “Thank you for your hard work.” I wasn’t really doing much of anything, but she was conveying her appreciation for me taking time at night (the practice goes from 7pm-9pm) to stay at the school and be with the kids when I could just as easily be at home updating my blog. It doesn’t matter if the gesture was as much tradition or conditioned response as a sincere expression of gratitude, because it felt sincere to me and goes to show how much they revere teachers here. It’s a highly respected position in the community, and it’s one I hope I can live up to.

OK -enough for now. I’ll hopefully add a few more posts this weekend. If you have any questions or would like to request a topic for me to address, please feel free to leave me a comment below. You can leave one anonymously without signing up, but then please sign your comment in some way so I know who its from.

Hope all is well.


PS - two quick links that you can check out:

1) my Jr. High’s website (in Japanese) - Taisha Jr. High
which has some pictures if you hit some of the lower links on the main menu

2) Link to an American Kendo site if you want to know more about it and see some pictures of what I’ll eventually look like decked out in all my armor: Kendo info