Tag Archives: humor

What Color Is The Sun?

So my seventh graders are covering a unit in the book which talks about how the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco isn’t golden. From my extensive nannying experience and all of the kids’ books I read to my charges, I know that the official color of the bridge is, “International Orange.” But every year when the teacher asks the students, “What color is the bridge?” they all say, “Red.” I stand there politely and don’t say anything because, well, in Japan it is rude to contradict someone and this isn’t a make it or break it aspect of the English language. This week, however, the teacher turned to me and asked

“What color is the bridge?”

I hesitated a moment. “Orange.”

“Not red?”




This is translated to the students, who all begin exclaiming about how the bridge is clearly red. Then the teacher turns back to me:

“What color is the sun?”

“In the middle of the day? Or at the end of the day?”

“What color is the sun when a child draws it in a picture?”


This is translated back to the students, who gasp. It’s time for me to ask a question:

“What color is the sun when a Japanese child draws it?”


The class was polled. Two girls used to make their suns yellow, one boy made it orange, and the other 16, yeah, they had red suns in their childhood drawings.

And for the first time in my 31 years I understand why “The Land Of The Rising Sun” has a big RED dot in the middle of their flag.


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Just Your Abnormal Friday

Today was a normal Friday. Or not. It depends upon how you look at it. All of the “normal” things happened: I went to work, helped teach some students, ate lunch, etc. But this day was still special because of the oddball things that happened. Here are three that stick out:

1. I ate an apple.

Japan has apples. Northern Japan is especially known for its apples. And the province I’m from, Fukushima, is known as one of the top apple areas in the country. Therefore, when I pulled out an apple as part of my lunch, you might think it wouldn’t have phased them. But it did. Here apples are only eaten once they have been peeled and neatly sliced. I opted for American style and bit into the red orb. Not only was this less prep work, not only did this mean I didn’t have my apple turning brown in my lunchbox, but it also meant I retained a lot of the nutrition is in the peel.

I knew my method of eating the apple would shock the students. What I didn’t anticipate was HOW shocked they would be. Instead of gaping and staring, they ignored me. They avoided looking at me. It was the same attitude people get when they are being shamed into social conformity. All because of an apple and the way I ate it.

2. We were given forewarning of a typhoon day on Tuesday. 

Typhoon Vongfong is heading straight for Japan. If its course continues on the current trajectory, it will reach here on Tuesday. An announcement was made to the students that if school was canceled on Tuesday, the Board of Education would make a decision by noon on Monday.

So why was this weird? We don’t get days off of school here for weather. At least, we didn’t in the past. Last winter my town had its first snow day in a decade. We get snow here, but people wrap chains around their tires and push through. Meanwhile, I am given to understand that typhoon days are equally rare, but we had one last October, and again this past Monday. Now we are facing another potential typhoon disruption.

I fully support the decision to have people stay home when the weather is dangerous. The remarkable thing is that these precautions are being taken. Either the weather is getting worse or the schools are getting more cautious.

3. My co-worker recommended that American women hang men’s underwear outside their house.

I was telling the Japanese teacher of English with whom I work that in the U.S. young adults are more likely to live with other single young adults than with their parents. He asked if these are mixed gender apartments and houses. Sometimes they are, I told him, but I’ve only lived with other females. I thought this would be applauded by the Japanese sense of propriety, but to my surprise he told me I should live with men. This is out of concern for my safety, to have a man to protect me and scare off creeps. Then he went on to tell me that some Japanese women who live alone will buy men’s underwear and other clothing and hang it out on their clothes line to make it look like a man lives there.

I think I’ll start by buying mace. But, you know, I guess if I feel threatened to I could start buying men’s underwear and tossing it in my wash…


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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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Tales of the Fifth Grade

Most of the time I teach at a junior high. However, once a week I teach at one of two elementary schools. Here are some tales from my interactions with the fifth grade students. 

One day I began class in the usual format:

Me: Good morning, everyone!

Them: Good morning, Hope-sensei!

Me: How are you?

Them: I’m fine, thank you. And you?

Me: I’m fine too. Thank you.

From there I go around and ask more specifics about how they are doing:

Me: Who is hot? [kids raise their hands] Say, “I’m hot.”

Them: I’m hot

Me: Who is tired? [a few hands go up] Say, “I’m tired.” 

And so forth.

As usual I asked who was sick. No one raised their hands. But three kids were wearing the surgical masks so popular on this side of the world. “Oh,” I said, “you’re just paranoid. Say, ‘I’m paranoid!'” and one obliging kid at the back swung out his arms in imitation of me and yelled, “I’m paranoid!”

In fairness, there is a good reason for a lot of them to be paranoid. People still go to work and school when they are sick, and often masks are worn as a preventative measure. I have also been told I should wear masks in the spring to help with my pollen allergies. 

A couple weeks later the kids were learning, “I like…” and “I don’t like….” A page full of nouns was available for use in these sentences. Unfortunately, most of the options fall under the “I like…” category: baseball, swimming, strawberries, dogs, cats, etc. I’ve learned that the students are most likely to repeat after me if they agree with the sentence. Therefore, while I might get some students repeating me when I say, “I don’t like spiders” I’ll be hard pressed to get a response if I say, “I don’t like dogs.”

Therefore, I had to come up with a few extra examples. Preferably ones using English words they already knew. Suddenly, I had an idea, “I don’t like tobacco!” I called out. “Tobacco” is what many Japanese call cigarettes. The 5th graders agreed with this. “I don’t like tobacco!” they crowed. Every kid in the room had said the sentence in a loud voice. Might as well keep using that one. “I don’t like tobacco!” I called out more adamantly than before, if that’s even possible. “I don’t like tobacco!” they called out in unison. I looked at the teacher. “I don’t smoke,” he said. “Neither do I” I replied. So I repeated myself again: “I don’t like tobacco!” This was rapidly turning into a PSA, and I wished we had cameras in here. PBS would be proud. “I don’t like tobacco,” the students continued to holler. But I decided we had drummed that lesson in pretty well, and we moved on.

The following week I was at the other elementary school, teaching the same lesson. I tried the same “I don’t like tobacco” sentence, and the immediate response was three girls pointing at the teacher. “Oh, I smoke,” he said. Yes, I can smell that you do. The students were willing to repeat after me, but they also kept pointing to the teacher. 

I should say here that quite a few Japanese smoke. Mostly men, but also some women. The idea that it is bad for them hasn’t been drummed into the Japanese as thoroughly as it has been drummed into Americans. It’s also still publicly allowed over here. Having lived in Chicago during the years prior to Japan, I almost forgot that people still smoked. None of my friends did, and no smoking was allowed in restaurants or within 30 feet of most buildings. Here those policies don’t exist. One restaurant in particular I’ve learned to always wear mostly dirty clothes to, for even if I sit in the non-smoking section, I will reek when I leave. 

Which brings me to another story: about a month ago some friends and I went swimming at a nearby lake. We took the train there, and on the way back I began to smell cigarette smoke.  Trains are non-smoking, so my friend suggested that someone had been smoking on the platform and at the last stop the stench had wafted in. But the smell wasn’t diminishing. I went off to investigate. As I navigated the length of the car, trying to look casual, I saw that up ahead of me four men sat with their heads together. They were whispering in a way that indicates they were talking about someone. Just before I got to them, I drew parallel to an old man sitting on a bench near the door. A lit cigarette was in his hand. I didn’t even pretend that this wasn’t exactly why I had come down here. Tilting my head, I gave him a look, shook my head, and turned around to go back to my seat. The guilty look on his face said it all. And, no, I’m not above exerting social pressure. I’m pretty sure that is what the four men were whispering about too. 

Back to the fifth graders: Later I had them go around and each say something they like, then each say something they don’t like. The likes were pretty normal: baseball, strawberries, sushi, etc.

The dislike category is where it really got creative:

“I don’t like zombies.”

“I don’t like ghosts.”

“I don’t like diets” (said a slightly pudgy kid)

“I don’t like my brother,” said a sassy girl at the back. Alright then. 

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Tales of Japan

Shut up!
Unfortunately some of the first English the students here pick up is the, um, less than savory kind. Sometimes it is all out swearing. Other times it is just stuff that isn’t entirely age

Case in point: a scene from a couple weeks ago.

I was teaching a class of first and second graders. Though I bring a lot of energy to the classroom and like to make the curriculum fun, I do need the kids to actually listen. Usually the kids are great, but on this particular day the second graders were talking to each other instead of listening. After a few times of asking them to calm down didn’t work, I paused. I stood there holding the flashcards, slightly smiling, just waiting. This strategy works pretty well in the honor society of Japan. It is considered shameful that I can’t teach the lesson, especially as a guest teacher (I only come once every two weeks, and I’m only scheduled to teach the first and second graders once a month). The other kids, seeing that I had paused, turned around and tried to get the noisy kids to pay attention. But, of course, they wanted to show off their English too. So this precious little first grade boy turns around and clearly says to the older students, “Shut up!” The
tone wasn’t menacing or harsh. He said it like you or I would say, “Please be quiet.” Slightly mortified, I explained to them that these words weren’t polite, and I had them all repeat, “Be
quiet, please” after me. Then, since they were quiet, I went on. But I haven’t been able to shake the sight of that precious little boy innocently using words that got me in trouble at that age.

Very, very cute!
My apartment is not too far away from a preschool, and occasionally when I walk by a passel of 2 year olds is hovering near the open door. If this is the case, I often stop to say hello and give
high fives to them. This activity occasionally draws more of the toddlers to the door. Three or four of them have taken to compliment me when I stop. “Eigo no sensei kawaii!” (The English
teacher is cute!). “Arigatou!” I reply, and give them another high five. At which point another child usually takes his or her turn to affirm me. Which I thank him or her for, and give another
high five to. After three or four rounds of this, someone usually changes to, “Eigo no sensei kakoi!” (The English teacher is cool!). That statement is then echoed by another round of charming little faces. A couple of times a teacher will walk by and whisper to them. The teachers know I speak English and view this as an opportunity for their pupils to practice. “Very, very cute!” the girl will start to chant. The chorus is taken up by others. “Very, very cute! Very very cute!” Now they are jumping up and down, thrilled to pieces at my cuteness quotient and charmed out of
their minds that they can tell me about it.

There are some rough days in this country, and the culture is not one that works hard on affirmation, so as strange as it may sound, being serenaded by a bunch of two year olds chanting my praises can really make me feel better. Encouragement: I’ll take it in any language!

The Ground Shaking: just an ordinary day…
As most everyone knows, Japan is prone to earthquakes. The country as a whole probably receives at least one per day, but they aren’t usually big enough to feel unless they are decently
strong and fairly close. That combination only occurs every two to four weeks. Yet that is still frequent enough for it to become part of the background noise of life here.

What I mean is this: yesterday I was shopping. Specifically, I was shopping for comic books (manga) as a gift for a friend. I’ve never shopped for manga before, and I was simultaneously
trying to guess which copies he might have already read as well as thinking about how much money I wanted to spend. In the middle of that we had an earthquake. It registered as 4.6 on the
Richter scale. I certainly felt it, but I also ignored it and kept thinking. A few minutes later I made a decision, paid for the purchase, and walked out of the store. As I strode away, for some reason the idea that we had just had an earthquake hit me. I was a little taken aback, not that we had had one, but that I had forgotten about it so quickly. When did the earth shaking become such a normal thing?

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Funny Pictures from Japan

It wouldn’t really be a blog about Japan if I didn’t insert some amusing images that were captured by my very own camera here in this country. 

In many public toilet stalls you will see this device in the corner. It holds your baby for you while you relieve yourself.

In many public toilet stalls you will see this device in the corner. It holds your baby for you while you relieve yourself.

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Scurvy, be gone!: This is a sign found in front of many city parking lots. I know that it is supposed to be a fancy “T” but when I see the sign, my eyes usually read, “24h limes.” As if the city is passionate about its residents getting Vitamin C around the clock. 

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Wait, can I cook here?: This grocery store in Kyoto is called, “A kitchen.”


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For sale in Kyoto: ski masks that come with a warning


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Calling The Village People: The name of this restaurant in Kyoto is “Mr. Young Men.” Your guess is as good as mine.


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Fore!: At Koganei park in Tokyo, a sign asks guests not to practice their golf swing.


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Physical Education: in a country that loves cuteness, even the red and white blood cells can be furry stuffed animals. The school nurse at my elementary school had these on her desk one day.


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 Instructions on a soda can: The raised printing explains how the tab should be pulled forward, then pushed back in order to enjoy the drink inside.


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Tissue box covers: In Japan, they sometimes put fancy covers on tissue boxes. Here is one featuring a character from, “Nightmare before Christmas.”


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Flirting with Colonel Sanders: A hard plastic figure of Colonel Sanders stands outside KFC year round, hands outstretched to welcome chicken lovers in. At Christmas, he wears a Santa suit.


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 Um, the birth of Christ wasn’t a group picture: at Christmas time, I spied this nativity set, arranged according to height, with the animals in front and the wise men in the back.



 “COW”?: A bar of soap in a handicapped restroom at the Nico Tourism Office


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“We’ve hammered down the prices”: A sign on a vending machine, advertising the fact that it sells drinks for 100 yen instead of the 120-160 yen prices of other machines. My favorite part is the little tens who have died and are floating to heaven with angel wings.


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Two Stories

What do you do with your teeth?
On Monday one of my students had a tooth fall out in the middle of class. Since I teach junior high, this is a decently rare occurrence, but out it came. The teacher explained to me that in Japan upper teeth are buried under the house and lower teeth are thrown on the roof. This is considered good luck and helps ensure that the next set of teeth will be strong. In turn, I explained that in the U.S. we put a tooth under our pillows, and the tooth fairy comes to pick it up, leaving money behind. The teacher translated this for the students, and they all made the standard Japanese noise of astonishment. They say “Eh”, but instead of making it one note like crusty old Americans do, the sound starts relatively low and raises 22 notes. The lack of completion of the third octave conveys a feeling of bewilderment. But in this case it was good bewilderment. I think they all wished they got money from their teeth too.

Um, would you like a pen?
Since I live overseas I have my mother on my checking account. It means she can deal with my finances and pay bills without too much of a problem. Because my parents live in a small town with exactly one bank, that is the bank chain I use. Like many companies, this bank gives out pens to its customers. They happen to be really good pens, and when I make my once a year visits I grab
half a dozen to take with me.

Today at the elementary school I teach at I saw the students looking inquisitively at my pen. I didn’t see anything special about it. It is a dark green ball point pen with English writing. Still, if they valued it that much…

I offered the girl the pen. She insisted she couldn’t take it. But the boy next to her said he would take it. The girl got mad at him. I don’t
know if it was because she actually wanted it or because she thought it was rude for him to take it. In either case, this was something I could fix. In elementary school the students come to the teacher’s room to fetch me to start class and they walk me back afterwards. The girl happened to be the one assigned to accompany me. Back at the office, I asked her to wait a minute and dug through my backpack to find another pen from the bank, which was subsequently presented to her. She thanked me and left. During cleaning time I saw she was using it to mark the progress on her group’s chart.

I wonder if this bank has any idea that it’s pens are floating around in rural Japan.


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