Archive for June, 2013

A Family Man in Japan

by on Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

The family on Mt. Kagobo in Tajiri

James and I did this recent interview over Skype when he was in Japan and I was in the Philippines. The photos of cherry blossoms and sports are his.

James on vacation

When I was a kid I was fascinated with Japan and the code of the samurai. Later I did Japanese language at the University of Sheffield in the UK. In 1988, immediately after graduation, I joined the JET program, which was set up by the Japanese Ministry of Education to help students speak better English. I was dispatched to northern Japan, to Tajiri, a conservative, rural town of about 15,000 people, where I taught two years in a junior high school. Then for my third year I moved on to a senior high in Furukawa, a neighboring town of about 70,000 people. After that I taught English at an electronics company and also started translating specifications and business documents. That’s how I got into my current work of freelance translating—business documents, manuals, specifications, web pages, overseas development aid. I am fortunate to make a living by doing something I enjoy, and I find it rewarding to assist in Japan’s contribution to developing countries and the world environment.

I’d come to Japan with images of samurai and studious, hard-working students. I found a place which without the Japanese signs would look like many Western countries. I was surprised to find a lot of lazy kids who were not very good at English and a lot of in-school bullying and violent incidents, with a big disparity between the kids getting good results and the kids just disrupting classes. I was hired to teach conversational English, but the students and parents were more concerned about the difficult, grammar-based exams to get into the good high schools or colleges. Conversation got swept under the carpet.

During my third year I married a local Japanese lady, Hiroko, the eldest daughter of a farming home. We fell in love with each other, but when I asked her father for permission for us to marry he got very angry and threw me out of the house. This wasn’t a personal thing or an anti-foreigner thing. I think her parents were aghast at their daughter’s marrying someone who could take her away. Traditionally, the eldest child stays on to look after the parents, and I wasn’t a farmer who would take over the farm. It was a bit of a drama after that. We met each other in secret, and she ran away from home to marry me. When we were married, I committed myself to staying here and making a go of it. Then after our first child, Mari, was born we started to get on very well with her parents. We live nearby.

We’re a long way away from any international school, so we’ve had to trust the Japanese public school system. The children had a good elementary school education in the basic subjects and also a healthy attention to subjects like art, music, moral education, local traditions, calligraphy and sewing. They spent twenty minutes each day in small groups for serving lunch in the classroom, clearing up, cleaning the classroom and corridors, watering the flowers, looking after the goldfish—nurturing a sense of responsibility and love for their surroundings.

I enjoyed taking part in school events: the annual sports festival, parent-and-child classroom and grounds cleaning, monitoring the swimming, helping with the PTA newsletter, watching the children’s performances, school culture day and school bazaars. I’ve always been impressed by how the schools work together with the parents and local community. Having said that, recently it seems younger parents have been drifting away from PTA activities and community events.  That’s a shame. Both of my children were taught to respect their elders, even students only one year above them, and look after the younger students. But they’ve been teased, being called “foreigner” or “half” (half-non-Japanese), but they’ve learned to ignore it. Thankfully it’s not been a big problem.

There was a time when Jun, my son, was bullied in his elementary school soccer club. The kids on his team were getting him to bring money and buy them all stuff. They seemed to be picking on him because he wasn’t great at soccer. When the other parents found out I was calling the teachers about it, they were up in arms. They didn’t apologize or try to get to the bottom of it. They blamed me: “Oh, it’s because you don’t look after your kid’s money situation.” In an instant people we’d been friendly with for three or four years turned and really closed ranks. I don’t think it was a racially-based thing, more like the saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” We were just supposed to admit there was fault on both sides and continue playing soccer, but I did an un-Japanese thing and pulled him out of the club. I think my son was just playing to please people anyway. Afterwards he joined an art club and made some real friends he could trust. He certainly respects himself more, and he’s finding himself more. But after that incident I stopped associating with those people and grew wary of committing to groups.

A sports festival at Jun’s elementary school

On the whole, the kids enjoyed elementary school. Junior high school was more exam-oriented, and the club activities began in earnest. In junior high Mari was immersed in studying and softball club activities. She never missed a practice session or a game. There have been times when I’ve wished we could have done more as a family together, without commitments to the external group getting in the way. It took some time for me to accept that. Looking back, I think some of our best days were spent taking our daughter and her teammates to games and getting to know the other parents. I don’t think that time was wasted. I’m grateful for her experiences and the friendships she’s made—and my son is now making—and the public school system.

Our son is now fourteen. I thought he’d do art club at junior high, but his sister said, “Don’t do it. Kids in art club get bullied.”So he’s playing volleyball. It’s good to see him turn up to practice and gain confidence as he gets stronger. Playing lots of sports and joining a club seems to keep kids out of trouble and give them a sense of teamwork, and I am again going to practice sessions and games.

In my marriage it’s been difficult to take trips of my wife’s working commitments. She’s a civil servant in the town office. I’ve always found it strange that she’s entitled to twenty days’ holiday a year but rarely takes all of them because she doesn’t want to burden her coworkers. I have often argued, “Oh, come on! Which is more important, your work or me?” But things won’t change because I think they should.

Cultural differences arise in numerous ways. Once after Hiroko had a minor car accident a Shinto priest had told her that it was because we felled some trees a few years earlier when we moved into our home. So when I wanted to cut down a tree in our garden, she opposed it on the grounds that it would upset the spirits and bring bad luck on the family. Many Japanese religious or spiritual beliefs and customs seem like superstitions to me, but I have learned not to judge and criticize what I don’t understand.

When Hiroko’s grandmother died we had a funeral in the family home. So many relatives came from all over the country, and they needed to be housed and fed for three or four days. With Japanese funerals, a company comes and sets up a little altar and a coffin with the deceased person lying in a state of preparedness to be cremated. People pay their last respects and drink some tea or sake and talk about their memories. The Buddhist priest chants sutras and bestows a posthumous Buddhist name on the deceased, which apparently costs quite a lot of money. The guests help by handing over envelopes containing money. Entertaining all these guests is very tiring for the family concerned, but everybody takes it very seriously, even if the guests are distant relatives. Visiting the family grave two or three times each year and the frequent memorial services bring families together.

An Osaki street corner

Our area of towns and villages has been amalgamated into a single municipal government to cut down on costs, so we’re now in the city of Osaki in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the prefectures where the big earthquake hit two years ago. The architecture is not very attractive or long-lasting because of the earthquakes and the humidity. There’s not much brick in houses, but wood frame or steel frame structures are covered with wood or resin panels, while business buildings are usually reinforced concrete structures. The average life of a Japanese house nowadays is said to be thirty years, and houses start losing value more or less as soon as they are built. It’s mostly because of the climate and seismic activity.  Our own home is now forty years old and is certainly showing some wear and tear. I’ve been agonizing over whether to keep maintaining it or to tear it down and rebuild. I’ve been doing my own amateur repairs and maintenance, something the neighbors find rather unusual and worthy of comment. [In a Confucian culture an educated person doesn’t work with his/her hands.]

When I first came, there was a bustling area around the railway station, but now the city center is hollowing out as the small traditional shops close down and the out-of-town supermarkets and stores open up. I hope Japanese small towns don’t lose too much of their identity, but I fear this may be inevitable.

Japan seems to have an earthquake every day somewhere in the country. The big one in 2011 was on a Friday afternoon in mid-March. I was working and about to make some tea when it started off small and then grew very big. Jun and I escaped into the garden before things started flying around and falling on top of us. For a couple of minutes or more, the earth was moving like a ship on a really tempestuous sea. We were hanging onto each other, having trouble standing up. Inside the house was just totally trashed. Everything collapsed. Bookshelves were all over the place. The electricity was gone. Nearby the telegraph poles were all bent, and a lot of buildings had collapsed. The family managed to get to the evacuation center in a local school gym and spent the night there, but Mari was bothered by the lack of privacy, so we came home the next day and started tidying up. After that, we were queuing up in stores to get some supplies, living in the dark with the candles, waiting for the electricity to come on and listening to the radio for a week, wondering if it was safe to be at home with all the after-quakes because our house had been weakened quite a lot. It shakes more than before.

For a couple of weeks after the quake there was a real sense of community and helpfulness in town. People were really considerate of each other, stopping them in the street to ask if everything was okay and sharing whatever they had with neighbors—food or batteries or loaves of bread. They didn’t take advantage or loot shops. I was really impressed with that. We thought we had it bad in our town, but gradually we found out that the cities and towns by the coast were much worse. Then came the explosions at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The British embassy sent buses around to bring its nationals home because of the nuclear thing, but that wasn’t an option for me with my family here. Then the electricity came back, and people’s lives started to get back to normal. I was able to do some volunteer work by the coast later on, and I saw people traveling up from Tokyo, spending days just getting there to do some helping. It’s been tough for a lot of people, but in general they’re resilient and just keep going without much overt complaint. On a sour note, there have been stories of confidence tricksters and unscrupulous builders tricking people out of their insurance payouts and government subsidies for rebuilding, but not many.

The quake and the tsunami were a huge disaster, and the nuclear incident has really hampered the recovery. The nuclear power company has been dishonest and really irresponsible in the way it didn’t prepare for such a contingency and nearly abandoned the whole thing. We don’t know how much pollution is still coming out. I’m amazed at the way the Japanese just accept it and get on with life, whereas in other countries the citizenry would be up in arms and rioting. I sometimes wonder whether the Japanese acceptance and resilience in the face of disaster is healthy or merely a case of denial. Mari now goes to college in Fukushima City. At first I wondered how we could let her study so close to the disaster zone, but I think we’ve come to terms with it and trust that radiation levels aren’t so high as to be a health hazard. In that sense, I have certainly become similar to the Japanese in accepting things as they are. Another example of that occurred just after the quake when we were queuing up at a store to get supplies and some young people ahead in the line were calling in their friends to join them, so the line was being pushed back. I was getting really angry about it. I wanted to tell the kids to stop doing that, but Hiroko was pulling me back and saying, “Don’t do it. Just leave it.” That was a cultural thing, not wanting to cause a confrontation. I decided to abide by her advice and keep my mouth shut. It turned out there was enough food in the store to go around anyway.

There are times I love Japan and times when I hate it. I don’t know if that’s the way it is with everybody. Some days I wonder why children on the street still point fingers at me and say, “Oh, look. It’s a foreigner.” Japan has difficulty integrating foreigners into its society although it needs to, with an aging population and not enough younger people to support it. I think government makes it difficult for local governments and lower organizations to open up. It would help to have more relaxed immigration rules to make it easier for people to stay on longer. But there’s a fear about opening up to the outside world and letting non-Japanese or overseas people have any kind of positions of power in society. Certainly on the human, individual level people are friendly and welcoming and interested in conversing and finding out about each other, but just there’s so much regulation.

I’m happy with the way my life has turned out. I’m grateful to have a family and to have brought my children up in Japan, where they have good friendships and prospects for the future. It’s been interesting to live in a foreign country and experience so many cultural differences and challenges. I think the key to doing that has been willingness to behave like the Japanese, but I’ve also needed to retain my own values and remember that home is where I make it.  That seems to be the ongoing challenge of living in rural Japan.

Inside and Outside the Japanese Classroom

by on Friday, June 7th, 2013

I met Phyllis around 2007 when she was teaching English at a foreign languages university in Japan. It was her second stay in Japan. Directly after college she’d come over as with JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme), teaching English in the elementary and secondary schools. Phyllis also taught in an English language program for international students at the University of Idaho, where her experience in the classroom was very similar to mine at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Phyllis’s story

Phyllis: I came here with the JET program at twenty-two. I thought of myself as a strong and independent woman who didn’t need any help. But I did a lot of the time, and the people who helped me were very gracious about it. I know that when I screw up people will dismiss me as a stupid gaijin [foreigner], but there’s a certain amount of self-pride you have to let go because you can’t possibly know everything, and it’s incredibly egotistical to think you could.

Only once did I make a cultural mistake and then immediately realize what I’d done. I’d been living here for almost two years. We were at a dinner. My house mother was going to give me a taste of something from her plate, so she reached across the table to put it on mine. I saw her and raised my chopsticks to take it from her. Instantly everyone in the room gasped in shock. That chopstick behavior was reserved for funerals.

As a JET teacher on my first trip here, I was sent to the board of education in my town, which sent me out to schools. For my first six weeks the students were on vacation. I went to an intensive language class for a week, then JET orientation for a week. Then I spent a month sitting at the desk with nothing to do. So I studied Japanese language for four hours in the morning, and in the afternoon I read a cultural book which was full of things about culture. I knew it would be an “in” into my life in the countryside if they could see that I was making an effort to understand and behave properly in their culture, especially since it’s such a group mentality.

Before that, I’d had a Japanese college roommate for two years. When she came home upset about something, I was the one she talked to about it. For example, one day she told me her boyfriend asked her if he could pick her nose.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Well, he wanted to pick my nose. Do American boys do that?”

“No. You don’t have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Having been through a lot of cultural stuff with her helped me immensely because I learned to take things with the flow. Later, when I was teaching in the US, I had students ask me about cultural things, and I was glad they felt they could ask me. One student had a roommate who was having her boyfriend in for the night. She said, “It really makes me uncomfortable, especially when I’m studying and they come in and go to bed.”

I told her, “If you were North American you’d tell her to take that somewhere else. You have to say something, or she’ll keep doing it.”

Here, a lot of the foreigners I’ve talked to have an issue with the way Japanese walk, which my boyfriend described as like they’re always stumbling around drunk. It’s an aimless walk, very slow and lethargic, not focused on what they’re doing. I’d thought I’d been feeling held back in a crowd because I have longer legs. I’ve heard other foreigners complain about getting stuck behind people.

Carol: When I’ve come over from Korea I’m struck with how different pedestrian traffic is. In the passageways in Korean subway stations people walk more like individuals, while here in rush hour you’ll find apparent strangers hurrying along in a clump, then an empty space, then another clump. I was told not to speed up to get out of the group because it’s rude, even when you don’t know anyone. 

That makes sense. Although I always zoom past. In the underground mall at Omega the other day, I was trying to get around people, and I couldn’t because the hallway was split almost straight down the middle, with people walking—on the left—in one direction and the other side walking in the opposite direction. In a mall at home everybody would be going in whichever direction.

My boyfriend is 6’2.” He’s okay with crowds at home, but here crowds are a little too much for him. On a train or a subway, people will suddenly move right up on him, really invading his personal space. Of course in Japan everyone is looking out the windows. Nobody looks in. The Japanese don’t seem to have any problems with the lack of personal space on public transport.

Carol: In Korea people may ask you questions or reach over and adjust your collar. If they’re sitting they may offer to hold your bag on their laps.

Phyllis: Here no one will adjust your collar or offer to take your bag. It would be too pretentious. You might want your collar that way. I’ve even had a student ask, “Is it okay for me to take this hair off your sweater?” Without asking permission it was not okay to correct anything about my personal appearance. Once I was standing in front of class for half an hour with my fly open. It was a short zipper, and there were some other attachments on the pants, so it wasn’t gaping open. During the break a Korean student came up, giggled and whispered, “Teacher—zip, zip.” I was grateful she told me, but I’m sure my Japanese students would have never said a word. It would have been too embarrassing to cause me to lose face.

Even if I say something they know is wrong, they won’t correct me, like maybe in a class that meets on Tuesday and Thursday, I say, “In class Monday…” They won’t correct me, even after class. Everybody just assumes everyone else knows. It’s odd thing how uninvolved my students can be.

Carol: Students have corrected me about that kind of thing in Korea after class, and I’ve said, “Why didn’t you tell me in class when it wasn’t too late to do anything about it?” So eventually they would. The most difficult thing has been getting students to ask questions when they didn’t understand. That’s considered too presumptuous too.

Phyllis: At the beginning of the term I get general oblivion from my Japanese students until they have a chance to be relaxed with me in the classroom. You could drop a quarter and the sound would just shatter the room, but after the first couple of weeks when they relax a little bit they’re much more open, and I get questions like, “How old are you?” So I say, “I was born in the year of the rat.” That gives them a couple of choices if they want to guess my age.

Any foreign teacher will tell you that during the first week the students’ giggles are really annoying. If you ask a question and they don’t know the answer, it’s hee hee hee hee, even from the men. But this is definitely a masculine culture. For example, the brightest girls are usually the quietest because they don’t want to appear to be showing off. Being passive is an accepted cultural norm, but being vocal means not being feminine. I tell my students to get over that. The male students get very intimidated when a woman corrects them, unless it’s the teacher. Strangely enough, if you put a male and a female student together for conversation practice, in most cases the man is more passive. He lets her do the reading, tell him about it and tell him the answers. I don’t know if this is so he can get her opinion and correct her. But if the students are in a group of maybe four, the guys talk and the women don’t. The man has to show that he knows what they’re talking about. Japanese students are very reluctant to break out of the norm.

Generally they don’t reveal anything about themselves except in their writing. I had the students do an anonymous Dear Abby writing assignment, and they really opened up. “I don’t know what to do. I have a boyfriend in Tokyo. I live here, and I’m not moving. I can’t decide if I should break up with him.” So I wrote back to “Dear Tokyo Boy Trouble.” Some of the students would probably been less open if I’d had them put their names on the papers. But they do seem to feel comfortable writing than speaking.

For a speech assignment I said, “Pretend that you’re a mom or a dad, and you need to talk to your children about something that’s happening right now that they’ll definitely need to know in the future.” I got some amazing personal commentary about what’s going on in the world. And it wasn’t anything they could have plagiarized.

Plagiarism is a big problem. The other day a student read a presentation in front of the class, and only two out of the twenty sentences were hers.  The constructions alone told me she didn’t write it, not to mention the vocabulary, which included some words that I didn’t know. I have handouts where I explain that in Western academia you can’t do that. “The words either have to be your own or you have to give credit for them, otherwise you’re stealing someone else’s words. If you give this to me and say that it’s yours then I’m correcting someone else’s English. And I don’t want to waste time on someone else. I want to focus on you.”

When I was in Idaho, I had a Korean, a Chinese and a Taiwanese student who went on the internet and found book reports which they turned in as their own. I highlighted passages and showed them in class, but without showing the names. I said, “This is not acceptable. I want to grade your work, but don’t treat me like I’m stupid. I’m your teacher. I know where you have problems in your language, and that’s why I work so hard to help you correct it. Honor yourself and honor your family with your best efforts. I’m going to give you a chance to resubmit your work after the weekend. I’ll take it on Monday.” After that I had bowing and sincerely apologizing from the grandmother’s grave. “We’re so sorry, so sorry, this won’t ever happen again.”

In Confucian cultures it’s expected not to have your own opinion but to quote the greats. Here a lot of things don’t exactly sink in. “This is plagiarism, this is why you don’t do it. Questions?” Then they do it the next time. “Okay, let’s go over this again.” It’s like teaching them how to write a thesis statement. It takes a long time for them to get it, much longer than you’d expect. Then all of a sudden the light turns on.

When I was in Idaho, one of my Japanese students was really interested in Arab culture. It was neat to watch a friendship bloom between her and a young woman from Saudi Arabia. When we talked about feminism in class, the Saudi woman said it was a misconception that Arabic women are demure and passive and didn’t have an opinion. The Japanese woman was shocked that in Japan women had fewer career options than they did in Saudi Arabia, where women were so restricted in their public roles but not in their public roles as women. You have to have women doctors and lawyers for the female clients. She said it sounded as if Arab women had more freedom than Japanese women did.

It was interesting to watch the students in conversation class when I had them paired with someone from another culture. There was a Japanese man and a Korean woman who worked well as partners. She was much more forward than Japanese woman probably would have been, so they challenged each other on things they were talking about in class. I had an Arabic man and a Japanese woman who were paired together. They had wonderful communication, possibly because she was so intensely polite, and she didn’t assert her opinions so much that he was offended by it. He showed her absolute respect as well.

There were a lot of prejudices that the students admitted to me privately. A Korean student told me, “My grandfather said that all Japanese were bastards, and I never wanted to interact with one, but here I am playing soccer with them.”

I found my Taiwanese students were inspiring to the rest of the class because they were so hard-working. One started in my class one summer, and when I asked him what his name was he didn’t understand me. But by the following spring he was the most fluent in my level 4 class, the one right before you take regular university classes, so on the TEOFL exam he would have scored between 480 and 500. Amazing.

The program in Idaho was an intensive program—four hours a day, five days a week, with optional classes in the afternoon. They were very small classes. The largest class I ever had was 15. There were very few distractions unless they liked potatoes and horses. During the week they studied because there was nothing else for them to do. Our activities coordinator planned something for almost every weekend—ice skating, kayaking, skiing, fishing, swimming. There were some interesting cultural museums. The students learned about the history of the Chinese railroad in the area, and they went to Seattle to watch a Mariner’s game.

We had a lot of Japanese and Korean students, especially for the year-long classes, but enough people from other countries that students were exposed to a pretty good mix of people from around the world. Outside of class students would still go off to speak their native language among themselves, but we tried to have coffee socials where they could mix and make friends. It was very much like family, which the Japanese particularly liked. They want to feel very close to their teachers. I was moving, so I gave some furniture to some of the Japanese students. That made them feel well taken care of.

When North American teachers first come to Japan, they’ll say, “I can’t cross that boundary between teacher and student. I don’t want to be their parent or their friend.” Yet I’ve found that the Japanese really would like to have you as a mentor and a confidante. They want to be able to come in and cry to you. “Oh, my life is so terrible.” There’s a counseling component to being a teacher, and they expect that. Our program in Idaho was set in a town with 15,000 people plus another 10,000 students. We went to parties with them and made cookies with them. Sometimes I hear from foreign teachers here in Japan, “I don’t see why my students hate me so much. I’m always in the office for office hours.” The Japanese have a different idea about teachers here, which is truly in loco parentis.

I’ll be here for another year. I came here mainly to meet financial obligations. Then I’m planning to teach in other places I haven’t explored yet. Maybe I’m off to see the world, like South America.

The most energetic and engaged students I’ve had were Tibetans in India, where I worked for six months as a volunteer. They were sitting on a cold cement slab under one light bulb. No desks or pencils or pens or paper. Sometimes I had chalk. In Tibetan society, teachers may be even more revered than they are in Japan, but my students also had such a strong desire to communicate, a compelling need to share what they had experienced and what their lives were like. I could go back and teach there forever, but I’d need a Japanese job to pay for the trip.