What Can I Say?

June 10th, 2009 by Steph

Dad’s always asking me how my Japanese language skills are coming along, and I never know how to answer this question. (3.2? C+? 78%?) While my Japanese ability has progressed a great deal in the last 3 years, those of you who understand Japanese and have heard me speak know that I have a long way to go before I achieve fluency. However, should the rest of you be mildly curious about my ability to communicate, here are some small victories from the past week:

*Successfully explaining the rules of Sharks and Minnows to a group of elementary school kids, each of whom has the attention span of a small kitten surrounded by fluff and balls of string.

*Figuring out who that random guy at the pool was. I had one of those awkward moments where I was greeted warmly by some dude I swear I’d never met before. After a brief conspiratorial conference with the poolside manager, I was able to divine that he was in fact my old salsa teacher (who’s also, incidentally, the nation-wide champion of Japan. And a hair dresser.) In my defense, I haven’t been to class for about a year, and he was wearing a swim cap.

*Conversing with a saleschick. Mildly curious about the GAP that materialized recently in Akita, I cautiously entered this new store but was skeptical about trying anything on. As I explained to the overly-eager sales staff, I’d been through this masochistic pas-de-deux with Japan-based GAPs before in Tokyo. Theoretically, the GAP is supposed to carry western sizes that don’t exist in the boondocks of Akita, but instead I found to my dismay clothing that had been tailored to fit the Japanese frame, and thus, not my own. After hearing my tale of woe and betrayal, I was assured that THIS store (GAP*USA!) was different, because everything is directly imported from America, and as such I was encouraged to approach shopping with renewed optimism and vigor.

I don’t know if any of that’s going to be on the JLPT, but it’s nice to know that I can increasingly say what I want to say on the spur of the mo’.

Winter Wrap-up

March 25th, 2009 by Steph

There’s a bunch of holidays that hit in rapid succession early in the year in Japan, though they often go unnoticed under the shadow of the flashier festivals. Here’s a not-so-brief road map to the winter holidays and festivals we celebrated this year:

New Year’s Day is, of course, a huge deal here but unfortunately I have no idea what it’s like, as I’m always off exploring some other country for winter break. The first holiday that hits me when I return to Japan from abroad is Coming of Age Day, which marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone who’s turned 20 within the last year gets dressed up for fancy photo shoots in anticipation of all the drinking, voting, and smoking that they are now allowed to partake in. Considering I can probably count on one hand the number of people who qualify for this rite of passage in Noshiro, I rarely witness this spectacle first hand.

Instead of reveling in the glory of being 20 (a distant memory for me), I spent the day honoring the deliciousness of unagi. A friend in Tokyo took us to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in eel, complete with front row seats where you can watch the chef carry out the following process with alarming speed and precision:

Step 1: Place live squirming eel on chopping block
Step 2: Deftly drive metal spike through brain in one stroke
Step 3: Split eel down the middle, removing the internal organs and spine with a few subtle flicks of the wrist

For me, this scene resulted in a complex emotional landscape; my reactions morphed from horror to fascination to scientific detachment as I witnessed the raw ingredients behind the counter go from eel to meal over and over again.

Noting that innards were on the menu, it seemed a shame not to give them a go (they’re certainly not going to get any fresher), so we chucked our hat into the ring and tried a few. I’m certainly no stranger to organs on the table… I’ve gamely eaten my share since moving to Japan, including chicken hearts, raw horse liver, and intestines from anonymous sources. And while I don’t want to be “innardsist” by declaring all offal as, well, awful, I am definitely seeing a clear pattern emerge with repeated culinary experimentation.

A few weeks after this squirmy encounter came Setsubun. This holiday is supposed to be the day before spring, but I don’t really get how this works, as it’s on February 3rd, and still damn cold. Maybe it’s a lunar calendar thing. While you don’t get the day off for Setsubun, you do get the opportunity to toss toasted soybeans from the front door of your house while yelling “Demons out, luck in!” while wearing a kicky paper demon mask. I made sure to throw my beans this year right when Chris was leaving the house… just to cover all my bases.

Inhabitants of western Japan also traditionally celebrate Setsubun by eating a huge uncut sushi roll in one go that’s only slightly smaller than your forearm. I live in eastern Japan, but thanks to the glory of capitalism, conbinis all over the country have taken to selling these seasonal rolls, and now you can find them in Tohoku as well. Chris and I gamely shared one of these humongous rolls between the two of us while facing this year’s lucky direction (N by NE). Only afterward did we learn that you’re supposed to remain silent while you eat it, and eat the whole roll yourself. Double fail on our part. Perhaps two wrongs make a right, and we’ll have a lucky year anyway…

I was still pondering the ramifications of my festive faux pax when Foundation Day rolled around. When I asked my colleagues how they usually celebrate the foundation of their country, I failed to get a satisfying answer. Most people just shrugged and went back to whatever they were doing. This ambivalence was kind of a mystery to someone who’s used to celebrating her own country’s Independence Day with fireworks and BBQs.

A bit of wikipedia research revealed that the low key nature of Foundation Day might have something to do with the history of nationalism in Japan. This holiday (formerly known as Empire Day) used to be all about uniting the country by paying homage to the emperor, and used to be a really big deal. However after WWII, nationalism became a bit of a touchy subject, and this particular celebration was abolished. The current incarnation of this holiday was only reinstated in 1966, and was re-branded to avoid evoking the nationalistic sentiments that are associated with pre-WWII Japan.

In addition to being a bit awkward thematically, Foundation Day is also one of those uncooperative holidays that refuses to stay put on either a Friday or a Monday. In fact, this year, it landed smack dab in the middle of the week. What to do mid-winter with a free Wednesday at your disposal? We tried to make a go of it by hiking through Juniko despite the bleak weather. However after driving for 45 minutes to get to this set of small lakes, we discovered that the park was closed for maintenance. As a fallback plan, we explored the hills nearby, where we discovered a waterfall shrine and a plethora of monkeys. All things considered, I guess monkeys and shrines are as good a way to spend Japan’s Independence Day as any.

Mid-February, of course, is the most exciting wintery time in Tohoku, when snow festivals abound. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we’ve had very little snow this year, which has detracted from the ambiance a bit. Additionally, winter festivals in Akita are pesky in that they all seem to fall on the same day, making it difficult to see everything unless you live in the prefecture for multiple years. With a few exceptions, we were finally able to see the remaining festivals that had, up until this point, fallen through the cracks. This year’s festival bonanza included:

  • Hiburi fire swinging festival in Kakunodate, Feb. 13-14
    Hiburi’s been a surprisingly elusive festival for the last few years. Kakunodate is several hours away from us by car, and the festival is often inconveniently held mid-week. Last year, we even contemplated driving down on a Wednesday for the festivities, but a snow storm and slippery roads made this trek next to impossible. This year, several events aligned nicely which permitted us to attend. The festival fell on a weekend, and, thanks to a mild winter, ice and snow were not an issue this year.

    The festival is pretty straightforward: anyone wanting to work out their pyromania issues can light a bundle of hay (ok, rice fibers) on fire and swing it around until it explodes in a shower of embers. The fire-swinging was mesmerizing, and on occasion, comic, as old men and little boys almost lit each other’s hair on fire. While it all looked like good fun, I held back for some reason. Maybe the lack of snow and the ample drizzle dampened my ambitions a tad. Or perhaps I felt constrained by the work clothes I was still wearing. Even though this was my last opportunity to see such a festival, for some reason I didn’t seize the moment and participate, a small regret which I carried home with me that night.

  • Amekko Candy Market in Odate, mid Feb
    The gimmick here is that if you eat some candy from the market (which apparently grows on trees), then you will remain healthy for the rest of the year. As someone who consumed a piece of said candy who is now sitting sick in bed, I can assure you that this was NOT a sufficient prophylactic for the common cold.

    From the promotional materials for this festival, I was expecting some kind of tangential activities, like parades or dancing children. However, the little bit of Amekko that I saw was kind of a let down as a) it was just a bunch of people selling stuff and b) the weather was miserable (although, to be fair, the word for “candy” in Japanese is a homophone for “rain”, so I can hardly complain if I got both). But I didn’t mind too much because I was with a bunch of fantastic people, on our way to an even MORE disappointing festival. Which leads us to…

  • The Not-So-Frozen Waterfall Non-Existent Festival, Part II: When Chlorofluorocarbons Attack, third Sunday in Feb. (in theory)
    Last year by some fluke, I had heard about a frozen waterfall just across the border in Aomori. I somehow convinced all my friends that it was a good idea to squeeze into a car and plunge into the snowy depths of the countryside looking for this mythic specimen.

    Not only did we find it, but we happened to arrive on the one day of the year when the shrine members strap on their drums, dust off their flutes, and honor the god of the waterfall. We were treated to a beautiful little procession which snaked its way up an icy path to a shrine cradled against the rock behind the waterfall. The waterfall, which had become a column of ice, was awesome to behold. Despite my burgeoning jaded expat exterior, I had to admit that the day had a kind of magical air about it. I made a mental note to bring more people back to experience it themselves the following year.

    I followed through and returned with new friends in tow but nature, alas, did not hold up her end of the bargain. Due to an abnormally warm winter, the waterfall this year was nowhere close to frozen. And to add insult to injury, there was no processional to speak of this year.frozenunfrozen

    Our disappointment was palpable, but we made the best of it by taking silly pictures that would immortalize our sadness and act as a warning for generations to come: global warming means no more fun winter festivals, kids.

  • Tazawako Alpine Festival 3rd weekend in Feb. (21,22)
    Unlike the “Fire Swinging Festival” or the “Candy Market Festival”, you never quite know what you’re going to get with festivals named after places. As such, the Tazawako Festival has never been high on my list. It’s just too far away and doesn’t spark the imagination. However, with this being Our Last Winter in Japan, with little else to to, we made the long trek through the snowy mountains to Tazawako to see what all the fuss was about.To my delight, this proved to be one of Akita’s smorgasbord festivals, and featured scaled-down versions of events I’d been to in the past, including hot air balloons, snow sculptures, and holy-cow, Hiburi fire swinging.

    If I’d ever been presented with a bona fide second chance, this was it. Conditions were perfect: the air was icy. Snow was delicately floating down. So despite my continued misgivings about lighting my hair on fire (it would grow back, yes?), I stepped up to give fire swinging a go. After watching fire-swingers in Kakunodate and hearing their plaintive cries (「おも〜い!あっちぇ!」), I was a little concerned about trapping myself in a fiery inferno of my own making. But once I donned the fire-resistant happi and stepped out into the snow-covered clearing, all my worries dropped away. Nothing was too heavy or too hot. At the center of my own universe of fire, it was captivating. I was shocked at how quickly it was over, and giddy from the experience for hours. Swinging fire was without a doubt the highlight of this year’s winter festival season. Learn from my mistakes: given the chance, don’t hesitate to play with fire.

  • Garou Waterfall Light-up in Fujisato, 3rd week of February
    I’m kind of at a loss for words for this one. Not a festival per se, the waterfall light-up in the tiny town of Fujisato would struggle to qualify as an event. As explained in the local newspaper, the Garou waterfall is bathed in an eerie blue light for a few days, and then, in a shocking turn of events, the light is changed to a festive green for the final two days of the light-up. There was also a rather nice snow dome nearby, which was made, if the adjacent obnoxiously green sign is to be believed, by monkeys. Such is small town life in the winter, I suppose. Lest you think me ridiculous for driving half an hour to view this modern miracle, I’d like to inform you that there was also a photographer with a tripod from Akita City in attendance, which means he drove at least 3 times as far as me to capture this moment on film.

After the festival madness comes a big fat girlie fiesta called Hina Matsuri, on March 3. This is essentially an excuse to set up untouchably expensive displays of dolls to honor your young daughters. People in other parts of Japan float dolls made of straw out to sea to get rid of bad spirits. In Tohoku, however, the tradition seems to involve grabbing the nearest female foreigner, slapping a kimono on her, and making her husband serve you green tea.

And then, of course, the ultimate sign that spring is right around the corner: High School Graduation. For my school, this falls without fail on March 3rd every year, regardless of the day of the week.

The morning of graduation we all huddled resolutely in our chairs, shivering in a cold and unforgiving gym that was still icy despite the industrial strength heaters scattered about. After long and lofty speeches by the Principal, the Mayor, the head of the Board of Education, the PTA President, an underclassman, and a graduating student, there wasn’t much left to say. The ceremony closed with my former students filing of the gym, looking either somber, bored, or bewildered at their new status as high school graduates. You can see for yourself below: for such a happy occasion, there seemed to be a lot of crying going on. Perhaps these are the students who weren’t hi-fived by the basketball coach? You’ll have to watch closely and draw your own conclusions:

Onēsan at Last

March 10th, 2009 by Steph

The honorific おねえさん (older sister) was first bestowed on me by the kids in my taiko group simply as a consequence of my age: I’m considerably older than they are, but not quite as old as their parents. My first two years here in Noshiro, I taught practically all of them, and Onēsan seemed like a convenient enough title when we were going about our business in taiko rehearsal.

This year, however, I was relocated to a bunch of new schools, and I now no longer teach any of my taiko kids. This has had some unexpectedly delightful side effects, as I’m now free to act more like a sister and less like an authority figure.

Last weekend we all attended a 2-day taiko workshop. At the evening’s enkai, I finally felt the taiko kids fully embrace the title of おねえさん and all of the responsibilities that it entails. All you older siblings out there know the drill, but I’ll break down my role for the rest of you.

Being おねえさん means:

  • issuing orders and having them carried out. In this case it meant getting an unusually bossy 10-year old to go and fetch a rag to clean up my drink, which she spilled while exhibiting excessive exuberance. The miracle is that she complied immediately and without complaint.
  • allowing fingers to be dipped in beer foam. Foam swiping is all good fun (who doesn’t like a finger or two in their drink?), but the problem was that this then escalated to whining and pleading for beer. When I looked to their usually no-nonsense mother for help, we found her curled up in a corner next to a friend giving us a hopeful and encouraging “thumbs up” sign.
  • making sure that one of the kids keeps my glass full of beer at all times during the enkai. I left this somber and sacred duty to the 14-year oldto my left.
  • wiping up spilled alcohol with the children’s socks that litter the floor. This is an excellent alternative which is readily at hand, in case those rags are just too far away.

and, of course, just generally inciting them to silliness.

Other pieces of information gleaned from the taiko workshop include:

  • A time-tested method for finding an enkai’s after-party, which is this: Wander the halls of the hotel which houses all of you, listen for the loudest room, and burst in with a full bottle of JINRO to join the party. I know this because that’s how the TWO roving bands of drunken Japanese taiko players found my modest post-party. By the end of the night, my small two person room contained 9 drunken men (some of whom had to be extricated by force) and one set of bongo drums.
  • How to drum for two days straight with a broken rib, as demonstrated by one participant from Kamikoani. Taiko people are hard core.
  • The first hard evidence I’ve seen in Japan of the global meltdown: enrollment in the workshop was visibly down from last year.

And, lest you think that taiko workshops are all about drinking beer and mistreating children, here’s the new piece we learned in 8 hours:

Earthquake #5

February 15th, 2009 by Chris

We felt our fifth Japanese earthquake today. We were having pizza with friends in Odate city, about an hour east of Noshiro. This one was very light; the epicenter was way off in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the country. I didn’t even feel the thing; my first inkling was when someone noticed all the lights in the restaurant were swaying. We probably wouldn’t have felt it at all in Noshiro.

Feb 15, 2009

Feb 15, 2009

For reference, the previous four earthquakes were:


February 12th, 2009 by Steph

One of the fun things about being friends with a reporter is receiving that 3 a.m. phone call, and doubly so in Japan. It’s always exciting to hear “Help! I need a foreigner’s opinion, ASAP!” on the line and realize that you are about to single-handedly represent everyone in your entire country to a sleepy little Japanese town of 50,000 in the middle of nowhere.

I got this phone call a few weeks ago, just after Obama’s inauguration. Reporter Friend asked me for my opinions on Obama vs. Bush and the current political climate in the U.S. (a place I haven’t lived for 2+ years, may I remind you). While Reporter Friend has a commendable working knowledge of the English language, there is still an appreciable communication gap between my faulty Japanese and her decent 英語, especially when it comes to topics like anti-intellectualism, wire-tapping, and fear-mongering. When it comes down to it, anything with a hyphen is probably kind of off-limits.

Nevertheless, Reporter Friend made valiant efforts to break through the 言葉の壁 and was able to produce her article. I know this for a fact because one of my spastically-endearing 15 year-old students texted me the morning the article was published to tell me how famous and amazing I was for having opinions (?_?). This all made me a little self-conscious… who knows if anything vital was lost in translation. For all I know, the article says that I’m a hard-core supporter of Gitmo and that I hate babies.

The finished product is below, peruse if you like. If any of you Japanese-speaking superstars out there would like to translate, I’d love to know what I “said”.

Until then, I can neither confirm nor deny that I may or may not have opinions about stuff… and things.

Status Quo

January 31st, 2009 by Steph

Stephanie is waiting for the other shoe to drop. She is pondering the illusion of free will. She’s ambivalent about being good today and is loving her lack of obligation. Stephanie is trying to curb her self-destructive impulses. She hurts in too many exciting places. She seems to prefer it this way… when life is complicated, uncertain, and intense. Stephanie has always preferred savory to sweet. Her bloodstream is chock full of ukon no chikara. She’s feelin’ pretty damn good. Or maybe that’s the beer talking.

Stephanie is having second thoughts…

She’s totally not taking a test today. Stephanie is dealing with reality by pickling her brain in television. She deserves a break from her rich emotional life, thank you very much. Stephanie will be impersonating a cat for the remainder of the afternoon, until she rediscovers her genki.

Stephanie is wondering if you are one of the balls she has dropped… Unfortunately, she can only obsess about one thing at a time. She cannot simultaneously study Japanese AND keep up with world events AND plan her future. Something’s got to give. At least she didn’t break anything while snowboarding. She swam a mile. She made one too many bear jokes. She chased waterfalls. She reluctantly harvested the persimmons off of her staircase.

Stephanie is more rest after death. Slowly, slowly, it will come to you.

Stephanie stopped and smelled the roses on the way to work today. And by “smelled” she means “pet” and by “roses” she means “cats”. Stephanie doesn’t care how much her vice-principal’s new car costs, but he likes to tell her anyway. He also likes to tell the other English teachers, “You are fat. Like a pig!” She’s not sure what to say when her teachers tell her that they’re hung over right before class. And she still doesn’t know what the plan is for second period.

Stephanie taught her students to squawk like a chicken when calling someone a coward. She will also totally scare the crap out of you in class to get rid of your hiccups.

Stephanie only made three 6-year-olds cry today.

Stephanie does push ups at school when she thinks no one is watching. Stephanie was just asked out on a date by a gaggle of 15-year old girls. She is amused to be ferrying love letters from school to school for her starry-eyed students. Stephanie is thinking she should have been a journalist. Or an anthropologist. Or maybe a ninja.

Stephanie can’t get any work done because her emotions are holding her hostage. Instead, she is anesthetizing herself with the Olympics and alcohol. She is having a hard time with closure. She’d rather leave than be left. She is practicing detachment. She’s learning when to be silent.

Stephanie rather enjoyed her last Onagori under the glow of the full moon. She had the beach to herself last night. There are plenty of cuts and bruises which prove she had a great time just trying to float there for awhile. Stephanie carped that diem.

Stephanie’s enthusiasm for kanji is waning.
She was hoping against hope for a beer in the fridge.
Stephanie misses PV=nRT.
She needs something to change.

Stephanie is high tension, scheming, and full of anticip………..ation. Stephanie is fierce. She thought she wasn’t pissed anymore, but no. Stephanie turned down alcohol in favor of explosives. She’s about to blow this popsicle stand.

Stephanie is walking the path. She has dotted her おs and crossed her ちs. Stephanie is going to try her best not to take anything or anyone for granted for the next 10 days. Or the next 6 months. Or the next 50 years.

The Obama Effect

November 13th, 2008 by Steph

…wherein I make heroic efforts to avoid words like “historic”, “hope” and “change”.

It started with the bulletin board. I’ve worked here for over two years and haven’t put a damn thing up on that English corner bulletin board. I’m just not a cutesy cut-and-paste scrap-booking bulletin board type. But last month? I finally had something to say.

I usually don’t talk about America in the classroom. I figure the students get inundated with enough crap American culture, I’m not going to force more on them… but, inspired by receipt of my absentee ballot, last month I made an exception and posted some information about the upcoming election. Pictures of McCain and Obama went up, along with a rudimentary explanation of Democrat vs. Republican. High school students began to gather around the board, giggling and pointing, looking confused but interested. This could be good, I thought.

Then last week in the days leading up to the election, I had the good fortune of working with my favorite Japanese teacher of English. Let’s just call him Rockstar, for his stellar teaching talents. Rockstar and I started class like we always do, by asking the students how they’re doing, and they respond in kind. In lieu of my usual schtick however, I responded by physically jumping up and down. Why, you ask? On Wednesday morning, I told them, we’ll find out who the next American president is. Be excited.

We then asked our 13 and 14 year-old students (impartially, of course) who they would vote for, McCain or Obama. To my surprise, everyone had very passionate opinions, like, way more passionate than I would expect from an American teenager. As it turns out, 95% of my students are for Obama.

How to explain this overwhelming majority? Some cynics theorize that Obama is popular in Japan because his name fits nicely into the Japanese syllabary. There’s also the small matter of Obama, Japan, a little fishing village which existed long before Obama the politician burst onto the scene a few years ago. However, Obama’s popularity with the kids is really no surprise… if you’re not avidly watching the campaign unfold, with the policy debates and the supposed scandals, all you have to go on is looks. I mean, who would you vote for, if you were 14? The young, hip guy with a smile or the old codger with a grimace?

My students verified this suspicion when we asked them to explain their reasoning. Most said they would vote for Obama because “He is cool!” or “He is black!” (which seems to lend one a certain mystique in Japanese pop-culture). One student though, blew everyone away when he simply replied: “Because Obama will see everyone as equals.”

Amazingly enough, one girl supported McCain to the bitter end, even after seeing all her classmates go for Obama. In a country that is all about not sticking out, at an age when you are dying to be just like everyone else, I was incredibly impressed that she stuck to her guns. Why does she support McCain? Because “Obama is too popular”. I didn’t delve any deeper, so we can’t be sure if she’s rocking the pity vote, or making blithe commentary on Obama’s messiah-like status. All in all, I was impressed with the students’ ability to express their personal opinion, especially when you consider that they’ve studied English for a year and a half, tops.

As Wednesday morning rolled around and electoral votes trickled in, I was on some kind of giddy caffeine-induced news high, drunk on information overload. Simultaneously chatting with friends, family, and my husband, we made the play-by-play back and forth as results began to pop up (Look, quick! Before it flips! Texas is blue! Go Dallas!) News began to trickle in about the rest of you as well: driving voters to the polls in Miami, last minute campaigning in Seattle, working long shifts at the polls in Ohio, stuck in chem lab in Texas, on the edge of your seat, waiting breathlessly in Harlem. As Obama’s electoral votes continued to inch towards 270, I raced off to teach for two hours. As usual, Rockstar and I brought up the election in class, that it was happening RIGHT NOW people, THIS IS NOT A DRILL! and if students wanted to know the results, they could come and ask me in person around 2pm to find out.

Little did I know that the entire school had been working on a research project about their hometown, culminating in an all-afternoon presentation. While this was a pretty awesome project, it may have stolen a little thunder from my election-fever. No matter… I went around from poster to poster, listening to students give speeches about the elementary schools they all came from, or what kind of fish swim in the river, or the best season to enjoy the local park, and it was incredibly sweet, actually. What a lovely way to celebrate and take pride in small town life (you know, the REAL Japan where the hard-working people with values live… ).

Then 2 o’clock rolled around. We were still rotating around the gym from presentation to presentation. But during those in-between moments, students inexorably gravitated towards me from across the room in groups of 3 or 4. In hushed conspiratorial voices, they would ask me「オバマかマケンか誰勝ったの?」After making them ask in English, and making a big “O” sign with my arms (also the sign for “Yes! Correct!” here in Japan), they would jump up and down, giving me high fives and celebratory terrorist fist jabs, then rush off to tell another cluster of students, who would approach me to start the process all over again.

But the most compelling moment was yet to come, when I returned to school on Thursday. Rockstar-sensei and I were on our way to class when he asked me to explain a little bit about Obama’s speech to the students. Unbeknownst to me, he had burned a copy of Obama’s acceptance speech to CD, and printed out hard copies for all of his students. I didn’t really have anything specific prepared. My impression was that he was planning on a 10 minute discussion, tops. To his credit, when I asked how much time I could use to discuss the speech, he replied “Take as much time as you want.” Anyone who has taught English in Japan while bound by protocol, anyone who has attempted to reach outside of the textbook, or tried to teach something which doesn’t fit neatly into the rigid government-determined English framework knows that setting aside agendas and schedules to learn from current events using real English is nothing short of miraculous.

We spent the entire hour going over the last 11 paragraphs of Obama’s acceptance speech, the part where the 106 year-old lady shows up to vote, and we stop for a moment to consider all she’s been through, to consider not only the hardships we’ve overcome in the last century, like war and inequality, but also all the progress society has made through technological breakthroughs.

To their credit, the junior high school students were familiar with just about every historical event mentioned in the speech (although it kind of blew their minds that this lady was born in a time without planes or cars). They nodded with hesitant familiarity as we went over (in English!) World War II, the first man on the moon, and even the Berlin wall coming down. They could understand how decades and decades ago, people were prevented from voting because of race, gender, or lack of money. What they hadn’t heard of and could barely comprehend was the Civil Rights Movement.

Using basic English we explained to our students about segregated buses and stores. We identified the “preacher from Alabama” as Martin Luther King (flashes of recognition here when Rockstar mentioned his name in Japanese) and that even though this man believed in protesting non-violently, he was still killed for his beliefs. When we stressed that all of this had happened less than 70 years ago, that was the kicker. That’s what they couldn’t believe. And that’s when it hit home, how this woman mentioned in the speech had been born some 40 years after the end of slavery, and had experienced the Civil Rights Movement and then lived long enough to witness the election of first African-American president. You could see the light go on, as students recognized the continuity and proximity of all these events, as they understood the context that makes this election’s results so extraordinary.

I am not a sentimental person. As such, I refuse to disclose the number of times that tears have come to my eyes since the election was called last Wednesday; frankly, it would be embarrassing. But I will tell you that each time we began this lesson, my tear ducts would ambush me. First it was discussing the Civil Rights Movement. When I got that under control, I then lost it when we got to WWII, which Obama describes as the time when “bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world”. Try translating that as an American standing in front of a class of Japanese school children. But the amazing thing was… we could all soberly acknowledge that this event happened, free of animosity on either side, knowing that even though our countries fought against each other in the past, we don’t have to be pigeon-holed by history. Tissue, please.

We wrapped up the lesson by discussing the “American Dream”, mentioned in the last paragraph of the speech. Until we began this conversation, I was unaware that many teachers and students alike in Japan have a very specific understanding of the American Dream. As it was explained to me, the Japanese interpretation has to do with the opportunity (possibly the right) to become rich and famous if you live in America. I explained my broader interpretation of the American Dream by making a list of some of the classifications that have divided our country in the past. Black and white. Rich and poor. Gender. Religion. And (in light of Prop. 8, thank you very much) gay and straight. And that no matter how you identify yourself, no matter what mix of all these things you are, you (should) have the same rights as anyone else. And (call me sentimental if you will) that if you work hard, you can achieve anything (even being rich and famous, if that’s your thing).

Now forget for a moment the larger-than-life oratory, the rhetoric, the poignant references to Lincoln and JFK and Martin Luther King. Forget the beautifully constructed arc of the speech, how Obama calls upon the citizenry for “service and responsibility,” the (dare I say it) historic drama of it all. Instead take in these words for a moment: “While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility…” Humility. A word I’ve scarcely heard in the last 8 years, certainly not from anyone in the reigning administration, certainly not regarding current American policy.

While it remains to be seen if Obama will be an effective president, he is already having a profound effect in my small community here in Japan. Instead of asking in class “People who understand, raise your hands”, Rockstar-sensei now says “Yes We Can people…?” and arms shoot enthusiastically into the air. The English teachers aren’t the only ones who are jumping on the band-wagon. The Japanese teacher also took in a translation of Obama’s speech to study with his class this week.

As for the two of us? The night of Obama’s victory we went out to carouse, euphoric on an election high (just like the rest of y’all, apparently). I wanted to run like crazy through streets packed to the gills with humanity, but this being Tohoku, I had to settle for something a little more modest in scale. Eager to share our good cheer with someone, we headed to a familiar restaurant where we know the folks who run the joint. We shared the room with one other Japanese couple. The TV was on, rehashing election results, mostly just showing clips from Obama’s acceptance speech. As the Japanese translation scrolled by on the screen, we could hear the general consensus in the room: “Dude, I totally can’t understand him but he’s SO COOL!”

We knew, all of us, that despite the excitement, that despite all the hype, he’s not the ultimate solution to all things. He’s not our fairy godmother. Of course he’ll make mistakes. But for that moment, we allowed ourselves the luxury of basking happily and without reservation in the election afterglow, drinking beer, feeling that all was right with the world, even if it’s not. At the end of the night, making our way out the door, we congratulated the two lingering couples on Obama’s victory. In return, their cheers ushered us out into the night, all of us flushed with mutual good feeling (and, let’s be honest, alcohol).

I’m not sure how election night unfolded for you, where you were, what you felt, when you heard. But that’s how it all went down here, in the boondocks of Japan.

We I like sex (Make up for adultery)

October 1st, 2008 by Steph

After two years of living in the same small community, it can sometimes feel like I’ve exhausted everything there is to do in Akita. The seasons may shift, the tides ebb and flow, I change my clothes every once in a while. But I still can’t shake this feeling of repetition, like I’m condemned to bike the same roads, wave to the same children, and teach the same classes over and over and over again. Which is why I’m always thrilled whenever I discover something that is genuinely new to me.

Take, for example, the main bridge in town, which crosses the Yoneshiro river. I bike over this guy all the time. I’ve watched sunsets and fireworks from this span. I drive over it on my way to onsens, to schools, to Aomori. But I’d never actually been under it before, until last week, when curiosity seized me, and I ducked under its low 4-foot clearance. Here, I found ample evidence that English is alive and well Noshiro, as well as graffiti, which has always been eerily absent in town, with the exception of this one scrawl by the river. Apparently high school students are incredibly motivated by the topic of sex (shocker!) and want nothing more than to tell you all about it in English. On the far side of the bridge, you can find a lovely “Welcome Motherfucker” salutation. This wasn’t the first thing I saw when I moved to Noshiro, but I kind of wish it had been.

Another recent eye-opener involves these discrete black, white and yellow signs that are posted throughout the countryside. They’re so discrete, in fact, that I didn’t really even notice them until a few months ago. Then I began to see them everywhere… the distinctive color scheme and the concise, clean design kept catching my eye. Last weekend, I went on a quest to photograph as many of these signs as I could find, and translate them when I had some free time. On a 20 km bike ride between Noshiro and the neighboring town of Futatsui, I found 11 specimens, often on old neglected buildings covered with corrugated metal, or next to these red and white “Orion*” signs which advertise the availability of “life loans”. What did it all mean?

Herein lies the beauty of the foreign language: when you first see signs in a language you don’t know, everything looks romantic and foreign and lovely. When I moved to Japan two years ago, I was thrilled to ride my bike down streets chock-full of atmospheric signs declaring: タバコ、お酒、おもしろ館. Now that I’ve become more proficient in Japanese, I know better: these signs are just hawking cigarettes, alcohol, and porn, just like everywhere else in the world. Comprehension is great, but sometimes, you lose a little innocence when you translate.

Such is the case with my mystery signs, because I found to my surprise when I translated them that they were advocating Christianity. Which is fine in and of itself, but some of the messages were a little pointed for my taste, including “Sin’s reward is death” and “Make up for adultery. Jesus Christ“. Before, these signs were just part of the scenery in the Japanese countryside, but now every time I see one, I feel like I’m being asked to consider my status as a sinner. It’s a little unnerving.

So, yes, there’s a slight loss of innocence there. But being able to understand these signs brings up a whole new intriguing set of questions. Christianity was banned in Japan until the Meiji era, and Christians (according to Wikipedia ;) ) make up about 1% of the population here today. Consider for a moment that the average frequency of these signs in my neighborhood is 1 every 2 kilometers. Where do they all come from? A little internet research reveals that these signs are not just in Akita, or even Tohoku, but that they can be found all over Japan.

As an outside observer with little emotional investment in the signs’ message itself, I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Who put these signs here? Are the owners of all these buildings Christian? Or are they indicative of a vigorous canvassing campaign? Why do I see these signs mostly in the countryside, but not so much in big cities? Discuss potential scenarios amongst yourselves, and let me know what you come up with… in the meantime, I’ll be out cruising the country roads, looking for another sign from (or at least about) God.

*FYI, while this company’s name originally appeared to be “Orion” in a funky English font, upon closer inspection it is actually “マルフク” in a funky Japanese font. Go figure.

Unlike you, I blog about ASCII art

September 17th, 2008 by Chris

Several people have noticed that it’s been some time since we last wrote. Well, I’m here to end that drought. But I’m not going to write about a fascinating cultural experience or deep personal realization. I’m going to write about my own particular brand of font-tinged geekiness.

That being said, this is going to sound like a non sequitur.

As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigned, out of the blue, with no hint he was thinking of doing so. (This is becoming something of a tradition, as the previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did the same thing almost exactly a year before.) Fukuda has been, I think, a good prime minister. He’s a moderate politician and has toned down the nationalist rhetoric of his predecessors, and is exactly the kind of “boring guy” you would expect to be a Japanese Prime Minister.

Fukuda’s popularity was in the dumps for his entire term, just like most of the the world’s leaders at the moment, and in part this was because his mild-mannered ways didn’t provide a lot of juice for the media to latch onto for their nightly newscasts. When he held a news conference to announce his resignation, a reporter apparently dropped the last straw by asking Fukuda if he had really put his whole effort into his job. (This is something that is definitely not kosher to ask a Japanese person “Do your best!” is essentially the national creed.) Fukuda responded with a delightfully snippy comment: “Unlike you, I’m able to see myself objectively.”

That comment basically ended up being the sign-off for Fukuda’s entire career, and it was pure gold for the news media. But the phrase that really inspired the Internet community was the “unlike you” bit, which in Japanese grammar comes at the end as a finishing punch-line flourish. The actual phrase is “あなたとは違うんです” which literally translates as, “I am different than you.”

This, naturally, brings us to ASCII art.

(ASCII stands for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange” and is one of the earliest definitions of a computer character set, covering the English alphabet, numbers, and basic punctuation characters. “ASCII art” is an ancient term referring to a graphical image composed on a computer using only textual characters.)

Japanese nerds are second to none, and an anonymous someone immediately hit the Internets with an anime-themed ASCII-art take on Fukuda’s parting press-conference shot, complete with guns blazing.


Click on the image above to go to Flickr, where you can see my annotations noting where Japanese characters have been used to great effect in the final image. As you may imagine, the characters 彡 and ミ are indispensable in representing politicians’ hairlines.

My favorite part of this Japanese “ASCII” art (and this is where I get really nerdy) is that it’s not really ASCII at all. ASCII is an extremely narrow standard, covering only the English alphabet. It’s not even useful for Western European languages since it doesn’t have any accented characters for French, Spanish, German, etc. So this Japanese “ASCII art” is really “Unicode art” (although I guess technically it’s Shift_JIS art).

This whole situtation was brought to my attention by a Japan Times article talking about this T-shirt that was brought to market within days of Fukuda’s resignation, and is still selling off the shelves. I am now the proud owner of one of these shirts (after waiting a week and a half for it to come back into stock). And that means you have the Japan Times to thank for waking up to a blog entry about two of the most entertaining subjects imaginable: Japanese politics and computer character sets.

Dos and Donts of the Road

August 15th, 2008 by Steph

Even though in your heart of hearts, you want to travel all 280 km from Noshiro to Aomori City by pedal power alone, do take a car along on your first long-distance bike trek. Do bring friends and travel in packs, terrorizing innocent bystanders in narrow countryside streets with your badass gaijin bicycle gang. Do stop for ice cream at every opportunity, even if the only available flavor is carrot. Do keep an eye out for monkeys crossing the street, and continue to stare in awe as they nonchalantly disappear with a rustle into the trees.

Don’t be so goal-oriented that you neglect to stop and explore the Shinto shrines tucked away by the side of the road. Do imitate superheros at every available opportunity. Do accept the vacuum sealed cobs of cooked corn from the nice man at the restaurant who just took an hour and a half to make you 4 pizzas. Don’t attempt to eat them, however, (the corn, not the pizza) as mold has infiltrated the packages and is inching its way between the starchy kernels.

When you realize that you have two more hours of biking to reach your hotel and only half an hour before check-in, do ditch your bikes in the boiler room behind the local temple gift shop and hoof it by car to your destination. Don’t feel guilty; it’s not cheating, you’re on vacation.

If at all possible, do reserve a room in a swanky onsen hotel for one night. Do take full advantage of the private onsen on your porch overlooking the Japanese-style garden as the sun sets. Do try to eat everything that is brought to your room for dinner, though this will take a good part of the night, as you wade through a cornucopia of sashimi, sea urchin, grilled fish, savory custards, abalone, pickles, rice and hotpot soups.

When you resume biking, and you pass a bus full of Japanese children on the road, DO make sure you ham it up by mimicking the one physical punch-line of every Japanese comedian you’ve never seen. This will bring you good karma with the transportation gods.

Do visit Goshogawara for their Tachineputa festival. Do arrive before dark so you can stroll down the street where festival floats are lined up and float pullers are diligently preparing for the night ahead. Do get a good look at the crazy vertical hair that the good people of Goshogawara force upon their children. Don’t expect to find much in the way of dinner. And for god’s sake, DON’T mess with the policemen. They are cranky and not happy to be working crowd control. Also… don’t idly stand in front of any food stalls while watching the festival or you will be soundly bitch-slapped by the authorities.

Do reserve a room in Aomori City for the Nebuta festival, and do it as soon as possible, say, early April. Do take advantage of the bleachers that hotels have set out just for their hotel guests. Do catch bells thrown by members of the parade for good luck. Don’t miss the ample product placement by convenience stores and beer companies. Do feel free to laugh at the effeminate gymnasts in full body unitards who want you to buy their particular brand of sports drink. Don’t spend too much time wondering how someone snuck an Egyptian pharaoh into the parade.

Do have more than a passing understanding of the festival schedule. Don’t assume that all parades are at night, and don’t park underground only to find when you’re ready to leave town that the exits have been closed off for a mid-afternoon parade for the next two hours. Don’t get grumpy when this happens to you. Hug a traffic cone instead. It understands your plight. Do understand that most of these week long nebuta festivals will probably culminate with an afternoon (not evening) parade. Corollary: Don’t be surprised when you drive to Hirosaki on the last day of Neputa only to find a ghost town when you arrive at night.

Do go into the Spanish restaurant you find while looking for okonomiyaki. Do eat the entire two baskets of bread and fresh butter that miraculously appear at your table. You’ve lived in Japan for two years. You’re worth it. Do order copious amounts of the lovely cinnamony sangria that is beckoning to you from the menu. It is just as good as you imagine.

Do go to as many onsens as possible while you’re in Aomori, but DON’T expect them to have soap and shampoo. This, apparently, is a quaint Akitan custom. Don’t pick your onsens indiscriminately or you may find yourself in the Onsen Of Death, where the air is saturated with steam hotter than hell itself.

Do take a ferry to tiny fishing villages in the middle of nowhere. Don’t listen to the guy at the dock who claims that you have no time to stop and pet dogs before the ferry returns to pick you up. Do find a tiny shack of a lunch place to order and conquer the uni-don. Do listen to the cute old lady who’s serving you lunch when she tells you that you’re about to miss the one and only ferry back the mainland. Don’t forget to buy a few kakigori on the way out the door to thank her for her kindness and attention to detail.

Do set out on your return trip home on a bike with gears, if your return trip involves biking over the Shirakami mountains. Do be on your best behavior at all times when traveling, as you will inexplicably run into your landlord’s neighbor and several members of your taiko group, even though you are cycling far from home. Don’t pull into a rest stop swarming with cops if you are a foreigner driving without a license. Do lose your bike tire patching kit in lieu of actually popping a tire. Do make the slight detour to view fields of tri-tone rice that form a giant canvas upon which famous Japanese masterpieces are re-created.

Don’t hesitate to stop at a friend’s house to crash, covering his entire floor with futons for the night. Do recuperate from your travels at a local bar, sipping on beers from Belgium and Mexico while you watch the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics, surrounded by friends from Canada, India, and Japan.

Do breathe in the intoxicating summer air, thick with the smell of greenery growing furiously under a bright blue sky as you return home. On your last day out, do find as many dead ends as you can, while you follow your river back home through the countryside, thus elongating your trip as much as possible. Don’t forget to look for herons tucked stealthily among the rice fields. Do stop for a moment to marvel at the din of chirping cicadas screaming over each other to be heard, their collective discord making the air shimmer in a tapestry of sound.

Do return home exhausted and collapse on your couch with schemes for future bike trips already taking shape in your head, the last thing you remember before sleep claims your weary limbs.