Search Box

Links to Culture Cafe Episodes!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Good Sports

Hello there,

Third from the right is clearly the best

     This is another long overdue post but speech contest prep has required me to stay late every day for the past couple of weeks so I've been a bit preoccupied.

      Today I wanted to reflect a bit on what my school's Undoukai was like. Undoukai (運動会), also know as Sports Festival, is an annual event which typically takes place after the start of the second semester at all educational institutions from Kindergarten to High School. The entire student body (within one school) is divided into various groups wherein they compete in a series of physical challenges for a ceremonious trophy at the end.
      This actually wasn't my first Undoukai (having attended Kofu Chu's two years ago) but it was the first time I saw my own kids compete. We arrive in August through the JET programme which normally means that the first big school event we see is the Undoukai. That year however, to avoid conflict with the many other schools within my town, the junior high school moved their Undoukai to May - just a month after the new school year. Had I only stayed for one year I wouldn't have been able to see it; fortunately that wasn't the case.
     I arrived to school that Saturday at my usual time of 8:10; the sun was out and bright that morning. Being well aware that I was going to spend an entire day outside I spent a bit of time dousing myself in sunscreen. The entire staff (myself included) was wearing our newly made school T-shirts bearing the slogan, "全力赤中," which doesn't translate so well directly but sounds good in Japanese.* Preparations had been made in the days leading up to event so at about 8:50am I made my way to the field where I awaited further instruction.
     Nearly every teacher other than myself had a job or a purpose for that day, which made me feel all the worse when I was included in the pre-event huddle and radio exercises**. I had asked one of my JTEs if there was something I should be doing to help as no one had mentioned it to me. She explained that I was there as a guest and I should simply be enjoying it. With that point duly noted I picked a seat under the pop-up canopy reserved for staff and waited. As with anything bearing even the slightest resemblance to an official event there is an announcement which commences it.
     The first events were 100m races between small groups of students. Since my entire school was only divided into a red or blue group the events were comprised of teams that included all class levels, 1st through 3rd. I'm not sure how the competitors were picked for each individual sport but it was definitely not split by class. Some of my students surprised me with their athleticism while others I had pegged as likely being adept at their various challenges.
    Next up was the Mukaden, which is a clever pun on the word for centipede (mukade, ムカデ) and the second kanji from the word for relay race (den, 伝). It's not as complicated as the last sentence made it sound, but if you recognize both words it gives one a chuckle. In any case, Mukaden is basically a three-legged race, but with about 10 kids tied together at once making it scientifically 33% more hilarious.
   One of the most interesting events was called, "栄光の架け橋" which roughly translated comes out as "Glory Bridge".*** The idea is that the groups make a bridge out of their backs by kneeling on the ground side by side while the nominated runner walks across this people-bridge in a race to the finish line. The challenge though is that the distance they have to run is longer than the number of people they can use to make a bridge. This means that as soon as one is stepped across that person immediately needs to run ahead and form a new stepping stone so-to-speak. It was wildly entertaining.
     Following these events were demonstrations done by the boys and the girls. The girls had a dance called, "えっちょうー!えっちょうー!," a traditional dance that was modernized with the help of some contemporary music. The boys later removed shirts and performed a series of increasingly dangerous stunts that involved human pyramids and lifting of people to ridiculous heights. After that there was a tug-o-war between the two groups. They split it up into multiple sessions so each team would swap out members successively until the entire student body participated.

Then it was lunch.

     After the break there were more races, relays, and a jump rope contest, which was split between class and group. Each team's members were divided into their respective classes and competed as a whole to see who could get the most jumps in. We saw one team go as high as 39, some that courageously brought home a 0, and everything in between.
     After all the events finished it was time to announce winners. Trophies were handed out per individual achievement as well as group performance. Another category was the banner design. Each of the classes designed their own Sports Day banner and everyone in the audience voted on which one they liked the best.
     Excluding the enkai, I spent a bit of time thinking about this whole day. At first it seemed identical to what I experienced at Mitsuko's school. It was similar in structure, there were similar events, and I also had nothing really to do but watch. The fact that they were my kids though changed how I felt about it. I became intensely interested in their performance towards the end of the day especially during the relay.
     I started to wonder what had changed. The first half of the day was interesting and fun enough, but it didn't affect me so immensely until I really thought about it. I realized that I was moved by them. The displays of athleticism, the level of cooperation, and the spirit of community that bound them was something I never had at any level of my education.
     Weeks beforehand I had been asking my students if they were looking forward to it. The answer was unanimously: No. I was caught off-guard. It does take a lot out of you, and they had to spend quite a few weeks practicing for all their events so I could understand why perhaps they were less enthusiastic about it, but a solid no? From everyone? It was hard to fathom. I did ask a few students afterwards and the answers all changed. I remember being 13/14 and never being able to admit when I actually liked something out of fear that it would be mocked so when they responded with, "It was kind of fun," I knew what it meant. I don't think they'll understand what a powerful experience it was until they don't have it anymore. If only we could learn this before it were too late.
     I'm going to miss my kids as well. That's what Sports Day somehow managed to bring forward into my immediate attention. It was likely less to do with Sports Day itself but rather the fact we were all in one place, at one time, making the most our of rapidly dwindling time together. There will be a time when I never see them again.

And that is a sad thing to realize on such a fun day.


* So Zenryoku (全力) means "All one's strength" and Akachu (赤中) is the abbreviation of our school. It's actually similar to how we shortened names of schools back home. I went to Pacifica High School, but it was just as common to say Pacifica High. This is a similar idea to when Akasaki Junior High School (赤碕中学校), just gets shortened to Akachu. It's a nickname for the school. So that plus Zenryoku means something like... Full Strength Akachu! Or All Our Best Akachu! In any way that one wishes to translate it, it comes out as sounding very much like a slogan or catchphrase, which is the idea.

** Radio exercises were something that originated in America as it turns by the Met Life Insurance company in 1922. It never took off there but a group of Japanese workers visiting Japan took the idea back home and it flourished. It basically involves light group exercising set to similarly light music. Since 1928 (used first to commemorate Emperor Hirohito) Japan has been broadcasting radio exercises (ラジオ体操) over the air. There was a brief moment during the occupation of Allied forces when Japan was ordered to stop doing it out of fear that it was too militaristic. As soon as they regained independence they went right back to it and it remained popular for many decades. Nowadays it's mostly forgotten but is still used at some old companies and especially at events like Undoukai where it largely serves as a way to encourage group activity, and a pinch of exercise.

*** That first kanji comes out as "glory" and the second part actually means "suspension bridge". I'll let you put that together in English however you want to.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fare Thee Well

Episode 09 - Yakult

After a long break we're back... or I am. Mitsuko is back in Kofu right now so this week is just me. On today's episode I share the story of my strange journey to Japan before being accepted into the JET programme, which includes onsens, and a bit of nudity. We also have special guests talk about what it was like leaving Japan, as well as what it's been like being back home.

Show Notes

First up is the Yakult. The journal entry I didn't read over the show is also depicted:

I wasn't joking, they're tiny!
From this older blog post:

You can get a quick overview in pictures of my trip to Kofu as told in the story along with a picture of exactly where the bus dropped me off that one fateful morning.

Here's some pictures of David and Dale on the last night we were able to see them.:


Here's Dale on the left with Maria on the right:

A Baskin Robbins Send Off
Here's a group shot:

(From Left to Right: Maria, Dale, Mitsuko, Myself, Charlotte, Tom, and Dave the Tall)
Thank you guys for being awesome and some of the coolest people we've met ever - not just Japan. Thanks as well for letting me ruin your night of goodbyes with that interview!

I also want to through out a special thanks to Spencer Dillehay for contributing to this week's episode! You can check out his (excellently titled) blog of Japanese adventures right here:

We wish all you guys nothing but the best!

We're on iTunes now so don't forget to subscribe!

As always if you have thoughts, comments, suggestions,
critiques, or maybe you want to find out how to be a guest on the show, send us an email at:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Office Worker

Everyone is out practicing for Undoukai again.

A picture of the office for reference
     I hear a few voices from the office lady, the librarian, and another teacher, as they discuss matters in the room behind me. Only one of the two overhead fans is blowing, beneath which there is nary a soul. Atop my own desk sits a fan from the 100 yen shop that Mitsuko bought me some months ago; it hums as I type. To my left are windows which allow for a few faint rays of the already dimming sunshine into the staff room. Occasionally I hear the shuffling of shoes on carpet, heading to and fro, but I never turn to see who they belong to.
     My glasses rest atop my head leaving the rest of the room as a pastiche of color, shape, and silence. Strewn about my workspace are a phone with no messages, a bottle with no water, and a bag with its contents poured out. Among those items are two notebooks; one is filled with lessons, the other, notes on a book I'm reading. The one with book notes is open and yet I feel no desire to write anything presently.
     The printer whines as it spits out a single sheet of paper that no one retrieves. My head lifts slightly and I catch the sight of my Snoopy wood block calendar; it inaccurately shows that the day is Thursday the 11th. There are four blocks - two for digits and two with images along with abbreviated days. Snoopy wears a look of consternation, or at least he did for the 11th.
     Out of nowhere teachers return and like a parade that suddenly turns a corner into an unsuspecting street the staffroom becomes lively around me - my gaze remaining fixed on the screen. It is only at this point that I notice the lights were off the entire time.  They thank one another for their hard work and I pray in silence that no one passes along similar sentiments to me. I was not a part of anything that would deserve praise.
     And like that - they're gone.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Delays Due To Relays

     The currently planned episode of the podcast is being postponed until all schedules lighten up.

Here's what's been going in the meantime:

The shirts will also have this slogan

     Of the peaks and valleys in a Japanese school system with respect to workload we're certainly at a peak. As of this writing, most schools are either preparing for their Undoukai (Sports Festival) or have had them last weekend. Mitsuko's was the latter and I'm still the former.

     Speaking of Mitsuko, she has since returned back home to Ebi and (as of the second semester) has started working once more. It's a bit sad that we have to live apart again. It was a good run while we had it - even if for horrible reasons, but hopefully work will keep us busy enough to avoid becoming too lonesome. She was elated to be back in action though and there was much rejoicing by everyone in her town - especially the students. There were no mistakes about being back to work as soon as she returned; speech contest practice started right away.
     While there are currently no classes for me, there's still much work to be done in the speech contest realm. Since about the end of July I've been more or less 'coaching' four of my students - three third years and a second year - alongside a JTE or two. Occasionally I'll be left alone to work with them and I quite like those sessions. I'm know I'm not good enough to communicate all of my ideas entirely in Japanese but there's also no need for that. Some of the best moments I've had working on the speech contest have come from the times when it was just the group of us - allowing for more breathing room and a less tense environment overall, which I believe to be essential for this kind of practice.
     I remember a recent time when I was practicing with a couple of students who I'll refer to as A and K here. K had been making great leaps in his pronunciation. I chose him in fact because he's quite good at mimicking me. Though he first did it in jest during class time I later told him what a useful skill it would be for learning a language. For practice on emphasis I had encouraged him to copy my pseudo karate chopping motions so he could remember how the cadence rose and fell. We joked about how he would scare people randomly speaking English and chopping away. Next up was A. I enjoy working with her because of how inquisitive she is. She'll be the first one to recognize that she misspoke and she'll always ask how she can improve her pronunciation. I try to avoid terms such as "right" and "wrong" when it comes to how one speaks so I always remind her (and the rest of them) that outside the world of speech contests pronunciation is really a bottom tier quality. During the course of our practice we were working on a rather difficult word to pronounce and I had thought up a new way for her to think about it. That clicked and she managed to say it perfectly. The look on her face after she had just blown her own mind was fantastic.

A picture from Isai Kindergarten looking out at the now defunct Isai Elementary
     If there's one thing that makes this job really worth it, it's the kids. They're just the best. I have the good fortune of seeing a lot of kids by way of elementary school and kindergartens, which does add to the workload but gives me a chance to have more fun as well. The downside is that outside of my junior high school, I have very scattered visits so I don't see each individual school as frequently as I probably should. My base school (junior high) is fun precisely because of how much contact I have with the students and how very unique and quirky they all are.
     Perhaps it was that way when I was a junior high school student as well but then again, I wasn't in the position to have everyone instantly know who I was, or like me for that matter. Even thinking about the teacher's perspective (back home) reaffirms that we never felt that way towards them, which isn't to say we didn't respect our teachers, it just didn't feel as automatic.
     I've heard from friends who teach/ have taught at high schools that they don't necessarily run into every student all the time, which is a shame. For people that do see (and frequently) all kids in the student body I feel as though one becomes nearly paternal in nature. It seems almost inescapable considering how much becoming a teacher feels like being sworn into a society which grants implicit trust and respect - something I don't take lightly as it seems easy to abuse. This serves to increase the value of my work all the more. Above all else, I just don't want to let my kids down.