Monthly Archives: September 2014

そらんぶし (soran bushi)

Yesterday was a really slow day at work. Slow to the point of boring. I only had two classes, and in one of them the students were taking a practice test, which meant that all I did was hand out sheets. Most of the time I stood to the side and calculated how many meals worth of perishable food I have at my apartment to figure out if grocery shopping this week is a wise idea (it isn’t). The second class was slightly more stimulating, but still not mentally exerting. Back at my desk in the teacher’s room there was nothing to grade and no assignments to prep. 

Deprivation provides appreciation, and days like today remind me how grateful I am to have teachers who partner with me. Today was extraordinarily boring, but my first two years this hum drum was par for the course. That most days this year aren’t mind numbingly boring is a gift I don’t take for granted. Furthermore, because of so much experience with boredom at work, I know how to ameliorate it. First of all I study. This year I haven’t studied Japanese as much as I should. Today I reviewed flashcards for an hour and a half. Secondly, I read. Sometimes I forget how much I miss reading. I pulled out Judy Greer’s memoir during lunch, and read a chapter from Naomi Novik’s Throne of Jade while giving my brain a break from studying. Thirdly, I invited myself to other classes. Namely, P.E.

One of the ninth grade classes had P.E. fourth period, so I wandered up to the gym to see what they were doing. Last week I got invited to join them for table tennis. Yesterday the teacher came over and explained that they were learning a traditional Japanese dance called the soran bushi, and I was welcome to join them. I accepted gladly. While my Japanese isn’t good enough to track every command the teacher calls out, there was a video playing which I could glance at when I got lost. What’s more, I had a small background in this dance. Last fall at a different junior high the eighth graders invited me to participate in a dance they were doing as part of a larger skit, and the dance was this same one. The afternoon before the festival six eighth grade girls crowded around me and taught me the basics. Later another teacher sent me a youtube link so I could watch it a couple of times. While I didn’t master it, I was taught the premise: that many of the motions mimic the traditional Japanese method of fishing in honor of that popular vocation. This meant I at least understood why my hands were doing the gestures (pulling a rope, throwing fish over my shoulder, casting out a net) as opposed to aimlessly going through the motions. Yesterday I revisited that dance. 45 minutes doth not a master make, and most parts I still fumble through, but my thighs certainly got a workout, I got to hang out with the students, I learned more about a Japanese art, and I had fun. 

That, I thought, was the end. It was a wonderful experience, but not quite blog material. Until that afternoon. 

Yesterday afternoon we had a pep rally for a sports day coming up soon. All of the pep rallies I’ve been to here are the same: students make a tunnel, the athletes run through it in their uniforms and line up, the principal makes a ten minute speech, each team gets on stage and introduces every member, an all male cheering squad gets on the stage and runs through a dance/cheer with a big old taiko drum, we clap, we bow, and students leave. It’s fun, and I like Japanese pep rallies a lot better than American ones, but I know what is coming. There isn’t any variation. I know what to expect. 

Except yesterday there was a surprise. After the usual cheer, the squad of nine males began dancing the soran bushi. I was flabbergasted. They were good too. At least much better than I expected from a group of ninth graders who I had never before seen dance, who have never had dance lessons, and who aren’t guys lining up for professional auditions. Considering the parameters of this squad, this wasn’t a situation in which the teacher was able to be choosy, and the results were not too shabby. They had clearly had extra practice, as they were dancing much better than the girls I was dancing next to a few hours earlier. Come to think of it, I had noticed that the boys as a group were dancing better than the girls. Those extra practices would account for it. 

I wish I could post videos here of both the pep rally as well as the dance. However privacy dictates I abstain. Instead, I am including a link to the video we watched in class so you can see what the dance is like. Enjoy!

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Maybe I Know More Than I Think: Reflections On 2.5 Years In Japan And Comprehension Of Culture

Back when I was preparing to graduate from college I remember looking back over my time at school and thinking, “Wait, did I learn something?” Please don’t misunderstand me: I loved my time at university. I was diligent with my studies while learning to back off and not push myself to academic perfection I sought in high school. I especially loved my general education classes, and I truly believe I learned an abundance from them. It was my major that I had a harder time with. I chose to study anthropology because I saw a judgmental nature within myself, and I wanted to lose that. I wanted to be more accepting of American culture and lose the ethnocentrism I saw within my heart. And I was successful, at least to a certain extent. I don’t know if I’ve lost all of the pride, but I know I have a lot less of it now than I did when I was 18. I know studying anthropology was a good decision for me. But when it came to explaining what it is that I learned over those 36 credit hours, that was a little bit more difficult. 
Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar question about Japanese culture. I read an article in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine that taught me about an element of this culture with which I was entirely unfamiliar. (For that article, see here). “Have I learned anything in my time here?” I wondered. 
Then came today. My seventh graders have already learned the grammar to give descriptions in first and second person. Soon they will learn how to describe a third party. My Japanese Teacher of English asked me to put together a series of flashcards with characters the students could describe. I was happy to oblige, and sat down to piece a list together. 
In some ways, I feel like I don’t know anything. The lead singer of any band in Japan could pass me on the street and I wouldn’t have a clue that I brushed by fame. I can’t describe the likes and dislikes of the most popular anime characters, and I don’t know where Dragonball is from. But the longer I looked at the list, the more I realized that it illustrates what I HAVE learned during my time here. I know the names of the bands my students like the most, even if I can’t tell you the songs or the names of the band members. I know that Mickey and Minnie are popular but Goofy and Pluto are not. I know that everyone knows Snoopy and no one knows Charlie Brown. Winnie the Pooh is popular, but Piglet is basically unknown. I know that even a preschooler knows who Santa Claus is, but no one here knows he lives at the North Pole. I can tell you the most popular soccer player from Japan’s world cup team, and I can name the most popular anime characters. I may still feel out of the loop, but I have learned enough to teach well, or at least to come up with a list of characters the students will know.  
It’s something. It isn’t everything, but it is something. 


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This Is How We Do It

All cultures revert to patterns and prescribed ways of doing and acting. Some cultures highly value tradition and some highly value innovation. There are pros and cons to each path.

On graphs that show typical cultural mindsets, Japan and the U.S. often fall on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One example of this is that the U.S. often embraces a new and unique way of doing something. Whether it is wearing jeans backwards or having pancakes for supper, the person who implements such change is considered “cool” or “innovative” or “pioneering.” Japan, on the other hand, values doing things a certain way because “This is how we do it.” Following you will find three examples of things that don’t quite jive in my brain, but which I accept are part of the culture and won’t change just because they befuddle me. 

1. Last Friday brought new reminders of the way things are done in Japan.  In the morning a group of five visitors came to see the principal. A couple of us scurried off to the kitchenette to prepare six cups of tea. Serving tea to a guest is pretty customary in Japan, especially in business situations, but I’ve also been served complementary tea at a pastry shop and at the jewelry shop I stepped into to have the screws on my glasses tightened. Serving tea at the school isn’t my job, but it was an especially slow morning and the woman whose job it was had stepped out of the building to run some errands. So there we are: the counselor, the interim math teacher, and me. The counselor was frazzled because she couldn’t find six tea cups that matched. 

“What about these?” I asked. There were six simple white cups that all matched. 

“Those are coffee cups,” she replied.

“Could we use them for tea?” I asked.

“No, they’re coffee cups.”

Okay. Well, I didn’t want to bring it to this, but, 

“In the U.S. we sometimes serve tea with cups that don’t match.”


“Maybe we should just serve them coffee?” The young math teacher has now chimed in. The search for six matching tea cups has proved fruitless. Coffee it is. 

This was all taking place late morning, and the coffee had cooled down. To freshen it up, the counselor added boiling water to the pot. The math teacher set out saucers and packets of cream. I grabbed the sugar sticks. Some were blue and some were pink. I was hoping they wouldn’t care about that minor fact, but just in case, I put all of the blue sticks on one tray and all of the pink sticks on the other tray. 

As there was a good chance I would make a mistake in serving the coffee, I let the counselor and the math teacher go in with the trays. But as I sat pondering what had just happened, I realized it cleared up an incident from seven years ago.

Back in 2007 my family visited my older sister, who was living in this same town in Japan. At the time, she was working at this school. When my family came for a visit, we were all served coffee. I though this was because we were Americans and they assumed we liked coffee better. In fact, none of us drink coffee on a daily basis, and three or four of us downright despise it. Still, I got a few slurps down in order to be polite, but I remember thinking how weak it was. I barely could taste the coffee. Teachers rotate schools at a rapid pace in this district, so I don’t believe any of the faculty present seven years ago still works there today. But the cups may not have changed. And perhaps that is the entire reason that we were served weak coffee one hot August morning seven years ago.

2. Friday at lunch time another difference arose, albeit comparatively minor. While usually a school lunch was provided, because of a crazy schedule, we all brought our own lunch that day. One student had grapes in his lunch. I watched as he systematically began squeezing the pulp into his mouth and neatly laying the skins to the side. This wasn’t a personality quirk. I had heard this is how Japanese eat grapes, but this was the first time I had actually seen it. “You know, in America,” I remarked casually, “we eat the skins. My mother is a dietitian and she always told me the skins are good for me.” The students all looked appropriately amazed. “Here, give me a grape, and I’ll show you.” The boy obliged and I popped it into my mouth. A couple other students wanted to try too. They didn’t make faces or anything. But I can almost guarantee you that they will keep squeezing the pulp out every time they eat grapes. 

3. On Wednesday a student came into the teacher’s room (in Japanese schools the homerooms stay together, teachers revolve in and out, and when teachers aren’t teaching they return to a general teachers’ room). It almost looked like he was wearing makeup. Now, Japan does have makeup for men, but junior highers, male or female, aren’t allowed to wear makeup to school. I thought some more about what was different and realized his lips had a bluish tinge. 

“Have you been swimming?” I asked him. 


Japanese elementary and junior high schools, at least the ones around here, have pools and swimming is part of the P.E. curriculum. The temperature outside was about 23 C (73 Fahrenheit) and it was a cloudy day. I don’t know if the pool is heated or not. But the kid’s lips were blue. 

Now, I completely understand that they probably need to finish up their curriculum and the sudden drop in temperature (we lost about 10 Celsius/20 Fahrenheit degrees in a week) was unexpected. The thing that doesn’t quite work in my brain is that in the hottest part of summer, Japanese people become quite anxious if they see someone going for a run in the rain. Or a walk in the rain without an umbrella. One time some friends and I were hiking, got caught in a downpour, and began biking back. A woman pulled over and insisted we take plastic garbage bags and put them on. We were already soaked. And it was warm out. I just don’t quite get it. And mind you, this rain fear is not new from the radiation. It was present long before 2011. 

There are certain ways things are done. They may or may not make sense to me. But in fairness, most people in the world don’t understand why Americans will remain stopped at a red light when no one else is around. And that is a rule I faithfully followed, even when I recurrently finished a shift at 10:30 p.m. and had to wait on empty streets for the lights to change. We all have our own comprehension of the rules. I understand that, even if I don’t understand the individual customs.


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