Sunday, October 10, 2004


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

1 comment:

Emily Watkins said...

Heh, yeah, autographs. At my first elementary school visit, I hung out with the sixth graders for a few hours, teaching them how to approach foreign-looking strangers at the Memorial Peace Park (is that the name?) in Hiroshima City and carry on a brief conversation in English.

At the end of the last period, the teacher left the room for a few minutes while I was signing autographs. I made the mistake of drawing a small flower next to my name one time, and then EVERYBODY wanted a flower. Then two flowers. Then another autograph on another sheet of paper in a different color. Big signature. Small signature. Then requests for cats or dogs (I refused to do both at once). I was very glad when the teacher came back and unburied me. Each of those kids must've gotten three or four autographs out of me. It was a small class of about 14, but still.

I'll be doing a couple of Halloween lessons on the 25th, and I'd thought of buying paper plates for the kids to make masks. But dag, paper plates are, like, five times as expensive here--the cheap ones, even.

But then what's a cushy tax-free salary for? *shrug*