Monthly Archives: October 2013

Japanese names (face palm)

As I’ve said before on this blog, my goal in this country is to love the Japanese people. One way I can do that is by learning their names. Therefore, this is an endeavor I have spent considerable time pursuing. It is by no means an easy feat. 

This is Japan. So take all of the usual difficulties you might have in learning a person’s name (there are a lot of names to learn, they didn’t speak loudly, they slurred their words, etc.) and add to the fact that 99% of the names you have never heard before. When I arrived in Japan 18 months ago I knew one Japanese first name: Mariko. Because I went to high school with a Mariko. Last names? Well, I knew the car companies: Toyota and Honda. I had heard of the actor Ken Watanabe, though at the time I couldn’t have told you he was Japanese. I also was familiar with the Suzuki music course. Ironically one of the teachers at my school is Mariko Suzuki, but that is another story. 

Last year one of the seventh grade classes at my principal school had 17 kids in it. Among these 17 were Ryu, Ayu, Yuga, Yuya, Yuna, and Yuka. You know which names I learned first? Chotaro and Marina. Last names are no better. That homeroom had 11 Satos, I think. The other seventh grade homeroom contained six Yoshidas and a Yoshita. This year I teach an adult conversation class at the community center, and of ten students I have two Mrs. Satos, a Mrs. Watanabe, and two Mr. Watanabes. None of them are related to each other or married. Those names are just that common. 

Most of my days are spent at junior highs. Twice a month, however, I teach at an elementary school. Being there so rarely has made learning names difficult, but last month I got the third graders names written down over lunch, and I’ve been reviewing them most nights before I go to bed. Today we had English camp and the sixth graders from my school were there. Today, ah, today, today they all wore name tags. 

I started by learning the two who were in my group. During breaks I would talk to the others. Here is what I discovered: In this class of ten, there is Yu, Yu, Yuka, Yuka, Yuta, Haruka, and Haruki. Jun, Fumiya, and Mahiro round the class out. I commented to their teacher about how their names are all so similar, and he said he has to be careful when typing grades into the computer. These kids are brilliant. I just wish that town had been a little more creative 12 years ago.

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Something Worth Fighting For

There are good days, and then there are rough days. And then there are just rough hours. Case in point: my morning was great. I had three classes I assisted in and then I knocked some other work out after lunch. It was lunch that was a little rough.

Today I ate lunch with one of the eighth grade homerooms. Eighth graders are often an interesting lot. My teammate Ashley used to say, “Seventh graders have the courage to speak English and ninth graders have the ability to speak English. Eighth graders should have both, but instead they have neither.” There are exceptions to this rule. But the group I ate with today were not one of the exceptions. 

I love all of these kids. Unfortunately, sometimes in my desire to love them I slip back into American patterns. Specifically the American pattern of showing love to someone by being interested in their life. After a lunch that was mostly silent, I asked Miu, on my left, how many cats she has. Cats, I am aware, are something she loves. 

“Five” she answered. 

“What color are they?” 


“All of them.” 

“No.” And she looked away, embarrassed. At the time I didn’t cognitively associate the shyness with the personal questions and my gut reaction was to attribute the awkwardness to their hesitancy to speak English.

“Yuske, how is your baby brother? Is he doing well?” This question was asked in Japanese.


“Yuya, how is your brother? Is he well?” Also in Japanese. More embarrassed looks. 

At the end of class another kid shunned me. For entirely different reasons I may cover in another post.

Admittedly, this is far from the worst day I’ve ever had, or the worst lunch I had. There was a highlight: Tsuyoshi, one of the politest eighth graders I know, ate my soup for me. To understand the significance of that, you should know that we are ladled out food and then more or less required to eat it. As a teacher I have a little more leeway, but disposal of food is still frowned upon. When I’m watching how much I eat, I’ve discovered desserts can be pawned off on other kids pretty easily and milk I can smuggle home. But soup is hard to give away and hard to take home. And I’m so over miso soup. Months ago I said I would pay $100 to never have to eat miso soup again. Fortunately, Tsuyoshi doesn’t charge me for taking the soup off of my hands. It’s one reason I eat with that homeroom. 

Nonetheless, the thick embarrassment of the lunchtime conversation cast a shadow over the afternoon. It’s easy to start second guessing myself. I say I’m here in Japan to love people. Well, what if I totally biff that? What if I’m not loving people? Not because my heart wasn’t in the right place but because I forgot to be intentional about not being American in the way that I love. 

Somewhere in the musings I remembered an email exchange I was part of about five years ago. A journalist named Kevin Sites spent a year covering different war zones around the world. I read the weekly entries, and when the book came out I borrowed it from the library. Late I wrote him with some questions I had. One of these was, “I look at you and believe you have done something with your life, but do you look at yourself and believe you have done something with your life? Because I also don’t want to be the person who chases something only to find it was as unfulfilling as the other options. In your eyes, has your life so far left a legacy?” He replied, “i gave up a lot to do this job–stable family life, sense of community etc. i hope there is some legacy from my work, but you can never be sure. each person has to choose for themselves to fulfill what they believe is their life’s purpose. i’ve tried to do that–but i might have miscalculated. unfortunately, there’s relatively little comfort in our decisions while we’re living them, we just have to hope they’re the right ones.” 

That has stuck with me. We don’t always know we are doing great things. Sometimes there is greatness in the day to day living and the daily perseverance, and that has to be enough. Maybe at the end we’ll look back and see that what we did was greatness. And meanwhile, in the midst of the journey, all we can do is hope, like Samwise Gangee in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, that what we are doing means something. 

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”

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Fall Festival: Welcome back, gods…

As I type this the sound of Japanese flutes streams into my room. Outside my bedroom window a procession of brightly dressed priests passes. Today the people of my town are welcoming back their gods. 
The common Japanese name for each month is its numerical status. January is literally “First month,” February is “Second month,” etc. But recently I learned there are older names for each month. February, for instance, is the month of wearing extra clothes. November is literally the month of frost. October is called the month of no gods. 
There are two religions that are common in Japan: Buddhism and Shintoism. In the Shinto religion gods are worshiped at various shrines throughout the country. Most towns have one or more shrines in them. High hills often have a path leading up to a shrine on top. According to Japanese lore, for a few weeks in October, all of the gods leave their shrines and head to Shimane prefecture, in the southwest part of Japan’s main island. There they have some sort of big meeting or conference, and then after a few weeks they return. Today is the day the gods are welcomed back. 
As an anthropology major, every part of me wants to prize and give value to the Japanese culture. I respect and admire my friend Chloe who has learned the Japanese tea ceremony and diligently practices on the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. I applaud my teammate Bryan for learning kendo, the art of Japanese fencing. And in my time here, I’ve loved learning kanji, the fancy characters that make up one of the Japanese alphabets. But it is hard to love days like today. 
Around noon I stepped out for a few hours. I love seeing my students dressed in traditional Japanese garb
instead of the jeans and a t-shirt they usually sport. (These two girls wanted me to take their picture, so I obliged).
I wandered down the street lined with booths.
I bought octopus dumplings and went goldfish scooping. Later, I ventured back out to watch what was going on. It looks like men carry small shrines down the street,
imbibe copious amounts of alcohol along the way,
get in the river (it’s 53 degrees and there is a stiff wind),
walk a little ways,
then get out of the river.
They all seem to enjoy it, which is pretty cool. Japanese people work extremely hard, and it is really nice to see them enjoying themselves. 
Still, days like today sadden me a little. It’s hard to watch the crowds and know that they think their gods leave. They ring bells to get their attention when they enter shrines. I look at their gods and see…emptiness. Sometimes as a Christian I take God’s love for granted. I forget how radical it is that Jesus not only loves me on a daily basis, on a consistent basis, but that He sent his son to die for me. I forget that isn’t normal. That the very concept of this relationship I’ve had for 25 years is unknown to many of my neighbors. This isn’t the Bible belt in America where anyone who doesn’t know made a choice. This is Japan. And they haven’t the foggiest. 

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I must have met Mayu, or at least seen her face, sometime in the 2012-2013 academic year. But I didn’t notice her until this school year. May 17th to be exact, about a month after the school year had begun. 
In fairness to me, Mayu attends a big junior high. There are about 450 kids across three grades, and I’m only at this school on Fridays. I struggle to remember these syllable sequences completely unlike any I heard the first 29 years of my life, and while I know many of the kids at my Monday – Thursday school (which fields a roster of only 100), at this point I do a better job reading the Chinese characters that adorn the patch sewn onto the uniforms at the larger school than I do actually remembering names.
Some kids we remember because their English is head and shoulders above average. Others because they are energetic or rude, both of which are atypical Japanese traits. Then there are the cute ones, the short ones, the tall ones, the fat ones, etc. Mayu? I noticed Mayu because she was the sad one. After class I asked the teacher about her and commented that she looked sad.
“Maybe she is not very good at English,” he replied. That’s Japanese for, “Of course she was sad. We just had English class and she sucks at it.”
“That is true,” I replied. I’d seen her paper during the quiz. “But many students aren’t very good at English. Mayu is especially sad.”
“That’s interesting. Her mother called her homeroom teacher at the beginning of the school year and said she was sad because she doesn’t have any friends in her new homeroom.” 
Here I should mention that unlike the American system, Japanese students have all of their classes with their homeroom. It is the teachers who rotate in and out. At the beginning of eighth grade the homerooms are reshuffled, and that is the group a student stays with through the end of ninth grade.
“But,” the teacher went on to say, “she is okay now.”
“No, she isn’t” I bluntly told him. “She is still sad.”
“Okay. I will say something to her homeroom teacher.” 
A few weeks later, Mayu came up to me in the hall. I smiled at her and she, in her very limited English, slowly and clearly said, “I am happy!” That was it. No greeting. No asking how I was. Just a statement, delivered unsmilingly, that she was happy. It took me a few minutes to process, but I realized word had gotten to her that I had expressed concern. She was probably sick of people noticing and that was her way of chewing me out. 
It’s a tricky balance: Knowing when to say something and when not to. Mayu looked sad. That’s all I got. Since then, she has looked better. Not happy, but not depressed either.
Bowing to the infinite wisdom of the Board of Education,  I didn’t go to her school for a couple months during the summer. I still prayed for her but I didn’t see her. 
On September 20th I ate lunch with her homeroom. Because the seat on her left was the only open one in the classroom, that is where I sat. Not long after we started the meal, the boy across and to the left of me pointed at Mayu. Depending on who you ask, what he said next either translates to, “Her face gives me a bad feeling” or “Her face is disgusting.” I’ve been studying a lot of Japanese this summer, so it’s very likely that kids in her homeroom were always saying such things to her and about her, and I was either out of ear shot or ignorant of the translation. In the moment, I shot back at the kid in Japanese: “That’s rude. Her face is cute.” He repeated his phrase. “Stop that!” I was getting worked up now. “That’s bad! Her face is cute.” 
I didn’t know then and I don’t know now if that was the right move or not. Junior highers, in any country, are temperamental things, and it isn’t exactly cool to have a teacher defend you, much less a teacher who is a foreigner. 
Then came Friday. In preparation for a culture festival today, three girls came to fetch my coworker, Bryan, for a dance rehearsal. I asked if I could come to. They were happy to have me. Mayu was one of the girls. I opted to tread lightly, not knowing what our status was. To my surprise, Mayu took my hand and led me around, making sure the leader knew I wanted to learn the dance and crafting me a pompom that I would need for today. Taking my hand and holding it for several minutes is a more intimate gesture than anyone else has shown me in this country. And crafting me the pompom? The five love languages are present in Japan, but in modified form. Acts of service, on a culture wide level, ranks extremely high. It doesn’t naturally register with me, and so as Mayu made me this pompom I intentionally noticed this and chose to feel loved by it. “This is something. This is a sign,” I reminded myself. 
Today while hanging out with a few of the girls, I sang the line, “perhaps, perhaps, perhaps” from an old Snapple commercial (side note: I JUST found out that Doris Day is the one who first sang this). Mayu must have massively misunderstood me, because she turned to me and deliberately said, “My name is Mayu.” It can be tricky speaking in English around these kids. A lot gets misconstrued. “Yes,” I said to her in Japanese. “Your name is Mayu. Mayu T*******” She whirled around, surprised that I knew her last name. But she looked excited. “Yes,” she said, pointing to her name tag. I let her believe that I had just read it instead of the truth, that I memorized it months ago. Her last name isn’t common. In fact, I don’t know anyone else with that family name. And that is remarkable in this country where certain family names are so common that Smith and Jones are put to shame. I can name 20 Satos, 20 Watanabes, 15 Yoshidas, and a dozen Sakumas off the top of my head. But of her family name, she is the only one. If I hadn’t memorized it, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to read it. Mayu pointed to her friend’s name tags. I could get the last name or a syllable from each of them. That one was a Sakuma. That one has the kanji for “beautiful” in her first name. It’s pronounced “mi” and so there are a lot of women with “mi” in their first names: Fumi, Nami, Miku, Miu, Amika, etc. But Mayu was the only one in the group about whom I knew the first and last name. That’s something. 
Soon we were back in the gym, getting ready to perform the dance. Bryan handed his camera to Adam and asked him to take pictures. Adam came over and snapped one of Bryan and I, then turned the lens towards the girls. Mayu turned the other direction so she wouldn’t be in the picture. “Why?” I asked in Japanese. “No, no, no,” she replied in English. “Your face is cute,” I said, staying in Japanese. “No, it’s not,” she said. And we each repeated ourselves a couple of times. 
After the dance was over, I grabbed my camera and got a picture with Mayu. Again, I don’t know if that is the right move. I’m trying to craft a balance between making her out to be a teacher’s pet and showing her that I think she is special, I think she is beautiful, and that I care about her.

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The Beginning of Understanding

There is a principal that every strength has an equal an opposite weakness. The stronger the strength, the weaker the weakness.
Yesterday was bunkasai, or culture day, at my junior high. We all showed up on a Saturday (the whole school gets Monday off) and the students showed off their projects, speeches, musical talent, and humor. It’s October, the beginning of the second semester for these students and the beginning of fall. Weather wise, it has just started to get unbearably chilly. Each day is a toss up on whether or not I will need a jacket. Bunkasai was held in the gym. The cold, dark, gym. My hands were freezing. I really wish I had brought gloves.
Japan has few natural resources. It used to have some coal over in Iwaki, but that dried up a few decades ago. There is no oil here. The trees were decimated once and have now been replaced. For awhile nuclear energy was the way to go, but now rampant protests post the Daiichi Fukushima plant disaster mean the government is trying to shut the plants down. Energy is expensive here. And the Japanese do not care to be wasteful. So they’re not. I think that is a great attribute. But sometimes, I’m cold.
Yesterday we took an hour and a half lunch break. Some people ate outside, which I opted against. Indoors wasn’t heated, but at least blocked the wind. After lunch I used the bathroom, then washed my hands, which ended up being worse. My school doesn’t have any hot water taps or air heaters. After washing, my hands were so cold even the students remarked about it to each other. I ended up hunting down sources of energy and using them as heat. Two students cradled my hands for a few seconds each. My hands stroked the coffee maker, then hugged the vents for the spotlight. It didn’t make my hands warm, but it did make them less cold.
There is a song I used to sing in church that had a line saying to God, “You are the warmest water.” Not hot, not scalding. Just exactly what I need it to be at the exact moment. Really warm water. Something I appreciate more now than I ever have before. And something I don’t think I yet fully understand.

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Hi, my name is Jilida, and I’m a missionary

My current job, as I mention in the “About Me” section, is as an assistant English teacher at a couple of junior highs in rural Japan. Throw in an occasional elementary school, a few pieces of private tutoring and night classes, and you get my schedule.

In this post I want to specifically talk about the work I do at the junior highs. Depending on my schedule, I spend 28-45 hours per week inside those walls. There are classes to teach, tests to grade, lessons to be planned, photocopies to be made, etc. Here is the catch: I’m not the head teacher. I’m the assistant. The decision to delegate work belongs to the Japanese English teacher, and, depending upon the teacher, we are assigned varying levels of responsibility. At one junior high I am allowed to grade. At the other, I’m not, but I am allowed to run the review game that begins class.

I, and some others, came to Japan under the impression that we would teach. I do some teaching, primarily in those after school activities and at the elementary school I teach at every other week. But at primary job, the junior high, I don’t teach. I’m ignored a lot, by both my students and the teachers. The language barrier is a HUGE barrier, and if anyone had told me that after a year and a half of studying 2 hours a day, six days a week, that I would still be unable to have simple conversations, that I wouldn’t have any Japanese friends who don’t speak fluent English, and that I would have yet to share the gospel with even ONE person in Japan, I’m not sure I would have come.

Except for this one thing: that I know I am called to be here to pray.

And that is the solution to everything. In the past month I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a teacher and started thinking of myself as a missionary. I’ve stopped looking for ways to pack my schedule with private tutoring and after school work and I’ve started looking at who and what I need to pray for. I’ve stopped asking my teammates how their day was, because I know without asking them that they experienced loneliness, boredom, frustration, and disappointment. That’s life as an assistant in the junior high. I’m not exaggerating to say I experience those EVERY SINGLE DAY, even on the days that have four or more wins. Instead, I ask my teammates, “How were you able to love the Japanese people today?” because that is an answer by which we can both be encouraged.

Teacher? No, my profession is not teaching. Teacher’s frustrations are mountains of grading, how to inspire students to learn, and classroom management. I’m a missionary. My challenges are prioritizing my prayer list, discovering how to be a better witness in the brief moments I have to shine in the classroom, and discerning how to inspire others around me. It’s not easy, but I never read a single missionary account that said it was. Some people eat bug larvae and relieve themselves in a hole in the ground. I pray against spiritual darkness and fight to stay encouraged and overflowing with God’s love.

Hi, my name is Jilida, and I’m a missionary.

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How I Spent My Day

My head English teacher has a reward system that utilizes stamps. She has a box of rubber stamps and if you do your homework or answer a question or are one of the first five in the dictionary game, you get a stamp. You can also do extra credit work by copying out English words. Each page of words earns a student one stamp. Each kid has a sheet the stamps are kept on, and that is one of the ways the teacher monitors their progress when report cards are due, by asking how many stamps they have.

One of the ways in which the head English teacher allows me to help her is by decorating certificates that are awarded when kids complete a stamp sheet. The teacher who helped her last year came up with a template, and there are a stack of photocopies ready to be decorated.

The Japanese school year begins in April, and now, about six months in (if you take out the six weeks for summer break), the trickle of awarded certificates is turning into a gush. I awarded five on Wednesday alone. I’ll be at my school next week, but then I will be helping with English camps for sixth graders, meaning I won’t be around for two weeks. Thus, today I preemptively decorated 8 certificates so the teacher would have an easier time of it when I’m gone.  

This first pictures is one I did for Wednesday. It’s pretty typical of my style. The character forming the “O” in job is Anpanman, a beloved character in Japanese society. “Anpan” is a bread filled with red bean paste. Anpanman is a super hero who flies around feeding hungry people by ripping off pieces of his head for them to eat. When someone first told me, I thought they were joking. But there was no trace of a smile, and the Japanese are not known for their sarcasm.



So is this one:


#3 I’m proud of because I utilized the red pen on my desk for extra effect.


#4 was Halloween inspired.


#5 was Christmas inspired. The paper’s base color is cream, and I wanted more of a snow white. I managed this by dousing the “Good Job” in white out. The stars have #4 written in them because this is the fourth certificate that this girl has earned. She does a LOT of extra credit.


Anyone who knows me knows I don’t really like crafts. The process definitely got tiring, but I am really happy that I was able to stay motivated and get these done. 

Here are the eight I cranked out today. The first five are all done in colored pencil. Today’s work was mostly done in crayon, with a minimal amount of detail done in colored pencil.

 #6 is clearly rainbow inspired


In #7 I’m playing with the effect of shading in the dark parts of the schematic. Here and in the next one I’m working with colors that compliment the picture on the sticker down at the bottom left corner of the sheet. This particular combination happens to remind me of a young hipster’s living room.


#8 is the same concept as #7, except you can see I added even more stars. 


Here I’m playing with colors. I experimented with using the neon crayons and decided to adapt by limiting the palate to three and making the third color a strong neutral color. Admittedly, I use unconventional colors as “neutrals”. 


This is one of my favorites. I took my inspiration from the painting on the sticker and instead of eradicating all traces of the cream background, let the words be a back drop to an entire flower garden. 


#11 is my other favorite. In case it is hard to see, I basically took the sticker and made a larger copy of the painting on the certificate. I also like how the silver border adds to the elegance of the picture without distracting from it. Artistically, I’m sure it’s better than the coloring sheet idea that is my typical work. What I’m not sure of is if I was supposed to turn this certificate into my own personal art work. 


Unsure of how my landscape impression would be received, I returned to the standard for work #12.



#13 And the last one. Balloon inspired. Growing up, I made birthday cards for my grandparents that either had rainbows, balloons, or flowers. Sometimes all three. That trend is clearly evident in today’s work. 


 I’m here in Japan to be a missionary. Some days that means I get to love the Japanese up close. Other days, that means I spend four hours decorating certificates. It’s loving them, just in a different way than I used to. Because in the end I know this really does help the teacher. And just maybe the students see how much work these are. And maybe they will feel loved by that.

I’m posting this because I’m choosing to take pride in what I did and how I spent my day. It’s not my preferred method of loving someone, but here I’ll take what I can get. 

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