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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Do You Remember?

Staring down Nakamise at Kaminarimon
     About a month ago I went to Tokyo with Mitsuko. I wasn't bursting with excitement before we went - apart from an amazing concert - because I had been before and it's always seemed like a place you really only need to see once to understand it. The itinerary this time around included many things I hadn't done before though, so I was of course looking forward to it still.
     I realize that it would've been best to do a proper recap of my Tokyo experience in a timely and chronological fashion, but it would mostly be all things you would have expected from it. Instead, I want to offer a story. As I walked down Nakamise I started to remember my first time there. It had never escaped me, but neither did it come up frequently. As many of us living abroad will soon discover, not many people are interested in life changing events that don't involve them.
     This was Mitsuko though, and her patience is probably one of the reasons we're still together. She is always game for a tale I have on hand, and hopefully you will be too.

- 2007 -

     June is perhaps the worst time of the year to be in Japan. It was either hot, muggy, raining, and occasionally all three for maximum discomfort. Being from Southern California (and not too far from the ocean) acclimated me to a summer that most people in Japan only dream of. Together, with other students on the same study abroad program, we found ourselves getting off a bus in Asakusa on a particularly miserable day.
     We walked as a group moving towards Kaminarimon, Nakamise, and Sensouji. Skyscrapers grew out of every sidewalk while suited men and women flooded the intersections at regular intervals. If one were not aware that an ancient shrine were around the bend, you would think it just another big city.
     A light drizzle added to the already abundant moisture built up on every place that could generate sweat. As we walked I scanned the streets for ATMs because I didn't have cash on hand, figuring I might do well to have at least a bit of spending money. Eventually one turned up, and a couple of people broke off from the group to make a withdrawal. I followed suit.
     Though were in Tokyo the ATM didn't have an English option. After I slid my card in, an array of glyphs that would be illegible for many years to come flew across the screen. I must admit that it was charmingly optimistic of my 18 year old self to assume that I would just be able to pull money out like I always did back home. Frozen at that screen I peered to my right and saw that another student had swiftly made short work of his transaction. He was about to leave as effortlessly as well before I called out to him.
     I asked for help. He wore his impatience as though it were a festival mask at having been bothered to help the helpless. With a sigh, he trudged over and immediately went to work. His fingers flashed across the display so quickly I stumbled when he asked how much I wanted. He declared that 200 would be fine, and without confirming proceeded to complete the process.
     The machine beeped and hummed its digital thoughts before finally spitting out a single sheet of paper. The other guy had a look and told me it didn't go through. He handed it back, then left. A bit disappointed I put away my things and made for the exit as well.
     I hadn't noticed but while I was fiddling with the ATM the drizzle had been replaced with a decent shower. My head was down as left while I stuffed my wallet away. At the sensation of rain pelting me I backed up and finally caught sight of how much was falling. The other guy had just finished crossing the street. I looked to the right and saw the signal flashing green, then freeze on red. He ran off down the next street outside my vision.
     I stood back under the overhang of the building and waited for it to turn again. I didn't have an umbrella so I wasn't going to wait on the corner. I took off after it changed. I swung my bag over my stomach and hunched a bit to protect the things I carried from the rain. I had only a general idea of the direction he went so I took my best guess and started running.
     As I ran, I passed by a series of vendors offering various traditional goods. I didn't know it at the time, but this was Nakamise. Many of the shops had started to pull their wares closer inside. The buildings were slightly squat, with flat roofing running down the length of them. They all seemed connected only separated by thin walls or drapes of various design and themes. My vision was mostly obscured as I ran still learning over, occasionally picking my head up to see where I was.
     We were on a tight schedule that day and I wasn't sure how long we were going to stay at Sensouji. I thought perhaps they were waiting, or had already left. Once I passed up Nakamise I found myself in the grounds leading up to the fabled shrine. It was there that I spotted the rest of the group.
     The gate I passed (Hozoumon) was unbelievably meticulous. Cylindrical beams erected it from the earth, draping roofs opened as though they were wings. The scroll work, carvings, color, and shape were all at odds ends when juxtaposed with the cold steel and concrete constructions that surrounded these grounds. It exuded the spirit of ancient Japan - a venerable portal to another time.
     I walked over towards the Omikuji* building, which had a slightly overhanging roof that I could hide under to catch my breath. I noticed, in the corner of my eye, someone pointing in my direction. I looked their way and saw a young lady, surrounded by young children. She was pushing them along a bit and clearly encouraging them to talk to me. I smiled as they worked up the courage to walk my way.
     Without realizing it I had taken a knee so as to be their height. The leader of the pack spoke up first.
     "Hello! My name is. . . " He started. "I like soccer!" Then in turn, each one introduced themselves to me first with their name and then something they liked. After they had spoken I cleared my throat and attempted to match them. I had only been studying Japanese for about a year at that time, and my Japanese was quite simple. I managed a simple introduction, and played with them a bit asking what few questions I could. I think at one point I pretended I was an old guy because of my advanced age compared to them. They liked that.
     I remember that moment so well. I remember it not merely because it was an endearing experience but because after we said goodbye to one another I realized that those kids were the first Japanese people I spoke Japanese to. They broke my ice, and after that moment I tried talking to as many people as I could. I'm sure I sounded like a fool more often that not, but they gave me the confidence to believe that if I talked to people they might be able to understand me. My Japanese ability soared during my time abroad because of that. I changed my major from biology after I got back. I don't think I'll ever know who those kids were, but I owe them so much.
     In that same spot I told Mitsuko this story. For me, Asakusa is a very personal place now. It will always be the place I look to when I need encouragement. I realized then why I studied Japanese so hard, and why I'm still trying. How about you, do you remember why?


*Omikuji are a kind of fortune typical of most shinto shrines. Usually a small donation is made in exchange for receiving one. If you've ever traveled to a shrine in Japan and seen tiny bits of paper tied around trees or poles, those were bad fortunes that people leave behind in hopes that the bad luck stays as well.

Thursday, March 12, 2015



Second years waiting anxiously for the graduates to walk the halls

     Graduation has come and gone. This year was quite special in that I knew all my third years very well. They were an exceptional group of kids - and just to warn you, I'll probably wind up saying that a few more times.
     If pressed, I would say that graduation in Japan is, at the very least, different than that of one from America. I haven't much personal knowledge in regards to what other ceremonies across the globe look like so for simplicity's sake I'll speak to my own experiences.
     As I left for work in the morning I was completely taken back by the amount of snow that had collected on the ground - specifically, any snow at all. It was mid-March! It's not all that uncommon to have a last wind from winter, but this was a freak day of cold and snow. The days before and after had perfect weather indicative of a much desired spring. After scraping my windows clean I drove off.
     The teachers in the office were about halfway dressed. When I say halfway dressed I of course mean that the ladies were all done up while the men still needed to put on ties and jackets. I threw my own jacket in the lockers we have because the accepted fashion here seems to be wearing it only when required. I can get on board with that because it'll help prolong its life, which is my way of legitimizing the fact that I don't want to have to buy another jacket.
     Looking up from my desk I had a brief scan at the day's schedule. We would clean for about twenty minutes, then at 9 o'clock the students would gather once more in the gym for a last minute practice session. Finally, at around 9:40, graduation would commence. Just in this first hour, the differences are notable.
     My high school (and many like it) might have been an exception for the following. Our graduating body was so large that we couldn't use the actual school's field for the ceremony and instead held commencement on the football field of a much larger school. While it is true that most of us work at schools with a marginally low student population I've never heard of a school (in Japan) not having its ceremony anywhere other than its own gym. Conversely, I've never heard a high school in America that did.
     After watching their graduation practice for a little bit I wandered the halls before finally ending up by the reception table, welcoming parents. Alongside four second year girls and two other teachers, we greeted parents and ushered them to the library where they would wait until it was time to enter the gym. To each one we would offer a hearty "おはようございます" and then "おめでとうございます," as they proceeded to find their son or daughter's name on a sign-in sheet.* The parents, by the way, were dressed to the nines. No father walked in without a suit on, and the mothers were dressed as though attending dinner parties. This is a stark contrast to what I remember from my own time, which might be best described as a sea of shorts amongst the faint aroma of coconut tinged sunblock.

The 68th Graduation Ceremony for Akasaki Junior High School
     Eventually I made my way inside and took a seat in the teachers' section. The band (minus the graduates) were seated on the side, close to the entrance. The undergraduates formed two rows in the very back. In front of them were the parents. As viewable in the above picture, the graduates sat close to the stage. For the time being, the chairs were empty because much like one would expect there was a processional march that introduced them.
     Back home, we wore a cap a gown, naturally. Underneath that, most graduates wore dress clothes. The boys wore suits and the girls wore dresses or skirts. The students here wear their uniforms everyday - which would be the case for me had I gone to a private school - and apart from a small adornment that is similar in appearance to a corsage, that is exactly how they graduated. Upon inquiring as to the name of said decorative element I was informed that they called it, "Ribbon". So there you go.
     They came out in two lines, which separated the A and B group. There was a path down the middle in which they walked together (two at a time) then subsequently divided upon reaching their seats. A very noteworthy point to make during the march is that it was only one of two times when people clapped. Nobody cheered ever, or otherwise made noise, but they clapped exactly twice: once when the students walked in, and again as they walked out.
     The ceremony itself was about an hour or so, and it involved a lot of standing up for people as they walked center stage, bowing, sitting, rinse, repeat. The principal offered some words (stand, bow, sit, etc.) then the head of our Board of Education, followed by the head of the PTA. After all that was over they started handing out certificates.
     Apparently handing out each certificate to every student is a rare thing to see. Thanks to the small size of our graduating class it was a possible but according to my principal, that's not always the case. In the event that the class size is too big, a representative would accept the certificates on behalf of the graduates. I thought that was a little bit sad. Everyone's name gets read out at ours, no matter how big of a class. I think we had about 1000 students at my high school that were graduating and we burned in the sun for all the time it took to read out each one.
     In any case, it's quite a thing to see. Everyone treats it with the utmost level of seriousness, which is fine, perhaps. The students didn't smile at all when they were on stage however, which was kind of sad to see. Each one proceeded up the stage, stood at the far end and faced the audience. From there they moved to the center and bowed in front of the principal. A helping teaching handed certificates to him, and he in turn handed them to the students. The receiving student stayed in a bowing position after receiving it, slid to the right, maintained that pose, and did not rise until the person following them received theirs. After that they straightened up and walked off stage.
     Once certificates were all distributed they sang. First, the third years sang two songs, with members of their class conducting and playing the piano accompaniment. The last song was sung between the undergraduates and the third years.

That was pretty much the ceremony. Plus or minus a few rounds of standing up, bowing, and sitting down.

     After the ceremony there was a kind of lull. The third years went back up to their classroom and had a little bit of lunch. Everyone brought a bento that day because there was no actual school lunch. Not much happened from this time until noon when we gathered around for the last part of graduation known as 見送り.**
     For this, all of the students gathered outside their respective classrooms, each holding flowers or personal gifts that they planned to give the recent graduates. I waited on the second floor, which is where the title picture of this post was taken. Once the time hit, the third years descended down each floor and walked the length of the hallway, passing by their former classmates. This is when the undergrads would hand out the flowers or any thing they personally wanted to give to their friends. It's a pretty emotional time, lots of students nearly cried, just as many actually did.
     I was taking pictures the whole time, being very careful to scout out a good location where I could get some nice shots. There was a moment in which a couple of my students realized I was standing there and ran up to me, mostly for pictures, but also to say goodbye. I congratulated them, adding that they were the best kids, and I had the most fun with them. One of the two couldn't understand, the other one did a little. I explained in Japanese and that's when tears happened. We hugged it out, because I don't care about the rules of not hugging here. You hug people when they cry. That's all I'll say on that front.
     I asked another teacher to help hand out cards with my contact information on it, including a QR code for the extremely popular messaging app called, "LINE" here in Japan. It's available all over the world too now, but it originated here. I told the students to write me, so I could send them their pictures. I don't mean to get ahead of my story but well over twenty-five of them have talked to me and I've sent pictures to all of them.
     After all the students walked the halls, I quickly ran downstairs and headed straight for the students' entrance to the school. I knew this is where they would end up, and I wanted to get a few more pictures while they were still hanging around. Sure enough, they were hanging back - not everything is different, loitering is a universal quality of the youth - and I eventually found myself in quite a few selfies, which have also been sent to me. I got some great last minute pictures, including probably one of the best pictures I think I've ever taken. One of my girls asked for a 記念, and I felt bad that I had nothing to give to her.*** I'll have a gift ready for the next time we meet, I promise!
     One of the things I tried to do was convince the students that this day didn't have to be a sad one. It should be happy. It should be joyous. Graduation is a cause for celebration. I think many of my students felt that it would potentially mean the end of friendships (including mine) since they'd all likely be going to other high schools in the area. I made sure to dismiss those things as nonsense. It doesn't have to be the end if we don't want it to be. We can still be friends if we choose to be. A memorable moment was when one of my boys said that he was sad because we couldn't meet anymore. I agreed it was a little bit sad, but expressed I was more happy for what they had in store. It only gets better, I told him. He nodded and said, "I will become a man." That was in English by the way.
     Once the dust settled and all the goodbyes were said, I started back for the office. I grabbed a final picture of the few students who were walking home. That really sealed the deal for me. When I had a look at the shot I had just taken, there was a degree of finality to it, despite having spoken against this notion. Back in the office, alone with my thoughts, I sat down at my desk.

What a day.

I'm going to miss you guys. You really were the best.


* おはようございます (Ohayougozaimasu) is a greeting, which means "Good morning."
   おめでとうございます (Omedetougozaimasu) is a way of saying "Congratulations."

** 見送り (Miokuri) is way of saying "send-off."

***記念 (Kinen) is translated literally as a memory, but it's best to think of it as a kind of parting gift or memento, similar to when we ask a person for something to remember them by.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Tales of the Shokuinshitsu (Volume 2)

Tales of the Shokuinshitsu

Vol 2: Edged Out

     In this edition we take a look at what will be one of the more infamous examples of y's relentless enmity towards me. Last Friday, after class, I was signing yearbooks. Many of the 3rd year girls were asking the teachers in the staff room to write something and I was happy to do so upon request. Very quickly though, a brief aside. These are the kids that I have spent the most time around and become the most familiar with. If you asked me right now, I could name every single one by their given name, and about 80% of their surnames as well. We've been through a lot together. A handful of these students are ones that I've worked with very closely when it came to studying for Eiken, speech contests, and other English related things. Some of them just bonded with me apropos of nothing owing to their own friendly disposition and kindheartedness.
     My point is that I had a lot to say for some of these kids. So, I said it. One of my girls in particular earned a very lengthy message because of how much I admired her curiosity about everything, never failing to ask questions, and unbelievably hard-working nature. She was the only student who participated in three back to back speech contests during my time here. We talked a lot outside of class; she made note of the things I put on my English board, and I even gave her some music occasionally.
     Whilst I was working on this girl's yearbook y came over and started commenting on how long of a message I was writing. This caused me to look at her message on the previous page. There were three sentences, the last of which was in English with the amazing line, "You were a good girl," followed by her signature at the end. Her annoying commentary filled the silence and gap in my writing.
     "Oh wow, Joshua! So much!" and, "You are writing many things!" or, "Sugoi, Joshua-sensei!" along with basically every variation therein you could think of. She didn't stop talking the whole time she was looking over my shoulder at what I was writing. So common is this practice that I wasn't annoyed by the lean as it's just a thing now. Furthermore, I wasn't embarrassed about anything or any of the praise I was writing for my student.
     At a certain point (still commenting on how much I was writing) she leaves to go grab a pen and comes back. Then, with the swiftness and furtive qualities afforded only to the most cunning of woodland creatures, she placed her right arm down on the yearbook and started adding to her message. The message she finished and signed. I'm left handed, so it was never going to work. She bumped my arm out of the way, in order to write more, without saying anything to me. I literally had to stop writing my heartfelt message so she could finish the measly attempt at her own. Classic y.