Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Incident in the Mud

On Saturday I drove all the way up to Saruganjo, searching for this art exhibition Gari and Daniella were putting on. Of course it was raining, and I, houkou onchi that I am, took the wrong turning at the last fork, went up a small concrete back road, had a split second to think 'this doesn't look so promising' then I drove hyakuchan right over the lip of the road and deposited her left front wheel in a rice paddy.

I cursed the mini-skirted trollops working at the no-pants shabu shabu whose hypnotic pussies and longlegs had worked to convince the corrupt politicians who were being wined dined and sixty-nined by construction company reps that approving budgets to concrete the whole of bloody Taramizu to within 1 milimetre of each rice field was not the complete and terminal wastage of money that it patently was. When reversing did not work I got out and spent the next 90 minutes, in the pouring rain, up to my knees in mud, mukade and bilharzia, trying to wedge pieces of wood and rocks under the wheel to get some traction. Finally, Mai chan and a dozen ALTs, unbeknownst to me, 200 metres away and appreciating the joys of fine art, good wine and light-hearted sexual flirtation, deigned to turn their attention to the car they had been vaguely aware of laying over thefields (Mai chan: 'I thought that white car looked a little familiar. I wondered why it wasn't moving.') In the end it just took a couple of people to push while I swore to myself that I Would Never LeaveNejime Again Except To Go To The Airport To Leave.

The art exhibition was attended by well-dressed cliqueish types who looked askance at this barefoot, mud covered madman who flicked rice field slime over paintings. Several attractive women sneered and moved away to practise fellatio on someone else. Later we went to sushi which wasn't as enjoyable as usual because many had never seen me eat before and kept talking about it which served merely to confirm my freak status. I responded to their scrutiny by going home and picking the leeches off my balls.

Just another day in paradise.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

My section chief is an idiot

Just now my section chief (kachou) at the Board of Education deigned to talk to me.

He talked to me, as he usually does, about what I will do when I go back to Australia.

As he is idiot, he is unable to speak to me in Japanese or English. He has always refused to acknowledge that I have conversational Japanese. On the other hand, he speaks almost no English. This is a rough transcript of our conversation,

'Oh Michael sensei, what do coming back to Australia?'

He has asked me this question at least four times over the last year.

'Mada kimetemasen kedo...tabun Eigo oshierukoto tsuzsuketieru' (I haven't really decided yet but I'll probably continue teaching English)

There is a look of disbelief on his face, as if he couldn't believe I could actually teach. On the other hand, I would have a look of disbelief on my face if I ever saw him do anything apart from read the newspaper and drink coffee.

'Oh really? Doko...where...shigoto...work...school?'

'Tandai de kamo shiremasen' (Maybe in a college)

'Doko...? Ah... Nani?

'Tandai'

'Tandai wa nani?'

Then the office girl informed him that I was speaking Japanese and repeated the word. At which point the dirty old treacherous bastard expressed surprise.

'Nihongo ja nai to omouta' (I didn't think it was Japanese)

I have been sitting at the same bank of desks as this chump for 2 and a half years.

Monday, April 10, 2006

My Job Is Stupid Part 1: Baka sensei

This is a big topic to cover and I have been a little hesitant about how to approach it.

A huge problem with the JET program is that English teaching in Japan is very ineffective. Despite English study being compulsory in both junior and senior high schools, as well as being almost universal in Elementary schools, Japanese students are often

unable to utter a single word of English

Many students will cheerfuly volunteer a few words and phrases, but the probability of coming across somebody who can hold a simple conversation is, at least in my area, zero.

The reasons for the failure of the English language education system in Japan are complex, but this is a blog, so maybe it will clarify things (for me, at least) if I relate my personal experience.

When I came to Japan I was not completely naive. I had taught Japanese students before, both in Tokyo and for several years in Australia. I had some knowledge of what the problems were.
I had heard, for example, of the 'Human Tape Recorder' problem, where ALTs were being used in the classroom only to read straight from the textbook.

Even so I was shocked when arrived in Nejime.

This might be a typical incident:

You ask a student a simple question, such as 'What's your name?' Or perhaps, 'How are you?'
The student will stare wide-eyed at you in shock and panic, then turn to a friend for help. That student will start looking through the textbook for an answer, perhaps enlisting the aid of a third student. Finally after 2-3 minutes of group consultation, the original victim will mutter 'I'm fine thank you' in a nearly inaudible whisper. Or maybe she won't answer at all and the silence will continue until the other teacher changes the topic.

These are kids who have studied several times a week for 5 years.

This story is not an exaggeration.

I didn't expect to change the world in Nejime but I did hope to make a difference. The first JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) I worked with was a disaster. Let's call her Baka sensei. When I first started 'teaching' at Nejime Junior High School I tried to schedule meetings with Baka sensei. After all, we were supposed to be 'Team Teaching', sharing the planning and execution of the lessons. While Baka sensei was pleasant and personable, she told me bluntly that 'You don't need to prepare anything.' In class I was expected to say a few words ('Good morning', 'Hello'); and for the higher grades 2-3 questions ('What day is it?', 'What time is it?', 'How's the weather today?'). There was no variation in these questions. After this 'introduction' Baka sensei spent the next 43 minutes of the 45-minute lesson talking in Japanese. The students stared either at the board or their desks. Sometimes they wrote things down. I was to 'stand in the corner' at this time. If I attempted to move out of my corner Baka sensei would say something like 'Michael, please return to your corner. Yuki can't see the board'.

At the end of the lesson I would say 'Thankyou. Bye for now.' Then the students would chant 'Goodbye'. Apart from those words at the beginning and end of the lesson, there would be no language, Japanese or English, uttered by the students. They were not permitted to speak or ask questions during the course of the lesson.

I was not permitted to be a human tape recorder. Baka sensei brought in a tape recorder for that purpose!

During testing periods (which seemed to come around often and take weeks) Baka sensei would tell me the students 'had no time for talking today' and I was 'not needed'. I would drink coffee during these times. I can't say exactly how often these tests come around or how long the 'revision for tests' took because I was never informed of dates or content of the tests.

This continued for the next 1 and a half years. For an experienced ESL teacher such as myself, it was, to say the least, extremely frustrating. I have about 8 years of teaching ESL, as well as a Masters in Linguistics. Yet at Nejime Junior High I was reduced to saying 'Good morning' and (if I was lucky) trying to talk to a couple of the brighter kids during lunch time. It goes without saying that it was a monumental waste of money, training, and experience. Not too mention an opportunity to motivate and teach those kids that will never come again.

You can be assured that I fought hard to change the system. I tried reasoning and argument with Baka sensei. She had a number of standard reasons why we could not do more communicative lessons. These included:

'We have to prepare for the tests.'
'We have to follow the textbook.'
'We can't do it like they do in the city.'

As time passed I noticed that the problem was even worse. Baka sensei went out of her way
to avoid situations where the students may have had to speak. For example, she would find another grammar point to speak about if her lesson plan was finished early, so the students would not have time to do a simple speaking exercise from the textbook. If worse came to worse, she would make me read out the pages from the textbook and have the students repeat after me. I realised why my predecessor had eventually simply refused to go to class with her (apparently she spent the last 6 months of her contract in the library every day.)

In the end I made no progress at all with Bakasensei. In meetings with my supervisor, I was told that 'You are the Assistant, not the Teacher', and 'Please don't make trouble.' I approached the head of the town Board of Education and told him face to face (in Japanese) that the teaching at the Junior High School was a fiasco, a waste of time, and that Baka sensei was incompetent. He laughed and told me to Gambate. A letter to the Prefectural Board of Education elicited the advice to try to be more flexible with the JTE.

A sense of cynicism was compounded at annual or bi-annual conferences for JETs. At these conferences, I was presented with dozens of good ideas for effective communication-based team teaching, as well as being lectured by well-meaning experts on the importance of Usage in the English classroom, the ineffectiveness of the traditional grammar translation method of teaching, and the general need to improve spoken English in Japan. Unfortunately, Bakasensei was never exposed to any of these ideas or opinions because...

It is not compulsory for JTEs to attend these conferences.

Perhaps it is not unexpected that I developed a certain cynicism about the School English Education System. It seemed to me that it was set up for failure, that it was possibly even deliberately designed to fail, that whatever communication ability the students acquired was despite the system, and not because of it, for example from talking to ALTs outside of class.

Well, that's all for now. Next time, my next JTE: Ironic sensei.

The Last Samurai

This is a post about Saigo Takamori, the man who was the model and inspiration for the character in the movie, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise

The Satsuma Rebellion started in 1877 and Saigo (apparently reluctantly) agreed to lead it. Essentially a clash between old and new, it pitched disaffected samurai against a new modernist state. In addition, the war was a last protest against central control by Tokyo and as such there were parallels with the state's rights movement in the Southern U.S. that was a factor leading to the Civil War.

Saigo led the rebel army halfway up Kyushu until it was defeated by the much larger and better equipped imperial force in pitched battle in Kumamoto. Then, months later, after smaller battles, skirmishes and retreats, Saigo’s remaining loyal troops and supporters made a last noble and doomed stand in the hills above Kagoshima city. His 300 men were surrounded by over 50,000 government troops, and on the morning of the last onslaught he committed ritual suicide.

When I arrived in Japan, I had high hopes for what I could do...but it is not an exaggeration to say that my first few months in Japan were terrible. I felt confused and alienated. Placed in a small town, I was at a complete loss. I would wake up in the morning and ask myself questions that seemingly had no answer: What am I doing here? Who are these people? What do they really want from me? And as a trained teacher of English as a Second Language, I was dreadfully disappointed at what I saw in the classroom: They call this teaching?, I would ask myself. Going home, I would gaze at the seashore and at hillsides: What’s with all this concrete? Since coming to Kagoshima I have been somewhat unwilling to put down in words what must be apparent to any ALT living here for any period of time- the pettiness and closemindedness of the people in the education system, and the ugliness of the countryside- a land covered in a patchwork of concrete, power lines, waste dumps, concrete apartment blocks and more concrete.

In this context the movie The Last Samurai and Saigo Takamori himself holds a peculiar fascination for me. The movie portrays a traditional Japan, a land of striking physical beauty and a culture of pride and discipline. A place where samurai meditate under falling leaves in ancient temples, where craftsman make things of beauty by hand and community leaders compose haiku. A place, in other words, seemingly far removed from my town.

Of course I was not completely na├»ve when I boarded the plane to Tokyo. I didn’t expect to be greeted on my arrival in Japan by horses and samurai swords, palanquins and a sea of kimonos.

And yet...and yet...I fully admit to being attracted to the famous icons of Japan: geisha, samurai, bushido. After all, who would want to come to Japan for pachinko, Hello Kitty and that JTE who won’t speak to you?
One scene in The Last Samurai resonated strongly with me. Saigo Takamori’s character, played by Ken Watanabe, is faced with the abolition of the samurai class. He indicates he will take his own life in shame.
Nathan Algren says, “A life of service...discipline... compassion...”
Watanabe replies, “The way of the samurai is not necessary anymore.”
To which Tom Cruise says, “Necessary? What could be more necessary?”

I was greatly impressed when I learned that the real Saigo would have been
familiar with these sentiments. Near the end of his life he lamented that the things he held most dear in the world, as embodied in the ideal of the samurai, no longer held a place in Japanese society. The paradox of course is that the changes he resisted were the product of political trends he himself was instrumental in affecting. It was Saigo Takamori who, with determination, courage and charisma, fought unceasingly for a change in Japanese government in the 1850’s and 1860’s and it was Saigo who led the armies that deposed the shogunate, opening Japan to the outside and making a modern Japanese state possible. Unfortunately the new political and economic programs were incompatible with Saigo’s vision of rule by a highly moral samurai elite. The movie captures accurately the tragedy of the clash between the old and new Japan, a clash that is still occurring every day, and even expresses itself as a feeling of ambivalence towards Japan in the minds of foreign residents.

As I read more about Saigo he came to represent to me many things that were good about Japan, and I began to identify with him, even drawing a parallel between his problems and mine. I read with interest of his personal beliefs. The Chinese philosophers he had studied led him to believe in an innate sense of good and evil that could guide someone with a pure heart, someone who practiced modesty and frugality. He believed in intuition and experience; his beliefs emphasised action rather than discussion and scholarship. This idea had radical implications for the practical politics of his time, but also happens to resonate strongly with my ideas of teaching English! I think of this when I try unsuccessfully to convince my JTE to agree to a teaching activity that involves the students talking. I muse on Saigo’s famous dislike of bureaucracy while waiting to fill out endless dreary forms in banks, post offices and town halls. I even found out that, like me, he didn’t particularly care for cameras. There are no surviving photos of him, and he is conspicuously absent from pictures of gatherings that he would have been expected to attend, such as formal cabinet meetings.


The Kagoshima of Saigo’s era (at that time called Satsuma) was very different to the Kagoshima of today. Nearly a separate state, it had thousands of samurai, rivalling Tokyo in power and prestige. Saigo and Satsuma were instrumental in toppling the shogunate, and in the process Saigo became the country’s recognised epitome of samurai valour. It was only after the rebellion that Satsuma became reduced to the level of other provinces in Japan.

Once I was talking about Saigo to a JET in another prefecture.
“He was a Japanese general and statesman,” I said. ‘He led the rebel armies in the civil war. He’s Japan’s Robert E. Lee. He’s famous.”
My friend, an American, hesitated.
“I think Robert E. Lee is more infamous, “ she said eventually.
“Not in the South,” I replied.

And while it is true that Saigo is widely respected all over Japan (he is not associated with any distasteful practices such as slavery) in Kagoshima he is iconic, he is revered, he is a mixture of Robin Hood and Abraham Lincoln. The longer I live in my town the more evidence I find of his popularity. There are posters in classrooms, books in school libraries. The kids pretend to be Saigo when they play games, and adults have entertaining anecdotes. There is a man in my office who shares Saigo’s distinctive appearance: a big, bull-necked guy with bushy eyebrows and bulgy eyes. A startling resemblance that cries out for explanation. When I suggested to my colleague he might be a descendant of Saigo Takamori he was immensely pleased and we became friends! And indeed, according to rumour, Saigo left many descendants.

And while many of his compatriots were fighting to expel foreigners, Saigo recognised the value of foreign ideas, at one stage meeting with the British to discuss joint action against the shogunate. And in later years he told his students that the study of foreign customs would help Japan as long as it was combined with a reverence for Japanese tradition. After his retirement from active politics, before the rebellion, he founded military-style schools in Kagoshima, where, among things, he encouraged the teaching of foreign languages. He was active in the recruitment of teachers and design of curriculum, and while researching Saigo I noted with interest there is no mention of foreign teachers being assistants.

I had been staying in Nejime for ten months before anybody thought to tell me that Saigo had a house there, and some time after that before I could convince someone to show me. It occurred to me that here was a valuable tourist site worthy of development. But sometimes Japanese people don’t value things the way you expect: the advertised tourist spots in town included a hilltop “Panoramic Park” consisting of a concrete carpark and a picnic bench, and a 50-metre strip of trucked-in sand backed by a concrete wall labelled “Gold Beach” Yet here was the hunting lodge of Kagoshima’s most famous citizen completely unknown to tourists...presumably because you have to live in my town for ten months before somebody lets you know of its existence.

That day was hot and I could feel the sweat dripping as I walked. Saigo’s house was marked by a single block of stone engraved with kanji; as I passed by it into the garden dragonflies swarmed overhead and cicadas drowned out the sound of my footsteps. The house was not extraordinary; it was like many on the street, a little bigger than most perhaps. I could see that the roof had been redone, though the walls and interior remained original. Inside, only a little remained to indicate it had been the residence of a civil war general: a single samurai sword on a stand, a bullet hole in the roof that, I was told, was made by Saigo accidentally discharging his gun. Outside, a stone bath where the inhabitants had bathed in the morning, still filled with water. There was a soft buzzing in the air nearby.
“Be careful of mosquitoes”, said my guide. I looked up and saw two, fat and happy, feasting on his ear.
Outside, the surrounding area bears little resemblance to the beautiful countryside of The Last Samurai. Actually, that’s not surprising- the movie was filmed in New Zealand. It is clear that Japan’s environment has changed a lot since Saigo’s day.
I decided to take the pilgrimage to Kagoshima city to see the major Saigo sites. One reason why pilgrimmage is an appropriate word is that Saigo is officially a god; there is a shrine to him near where the last battle was fought. I walked by the huge walls of Kagoshima castle, pockmarked by bullet holes from the civil war. I climbed the hill of Shiroyama, Saigo’s last redoubt, to the summit. The view from the top was expansive: the city lay spread out like a grey carpet, a sea of concrete vastly different to what it would have been like 135 years ago. And across the bay, the active volcano Sakurajima belched ash into the bright blue sky. So then, Saigo’s last days were spent in the shadow of that huge elemental force. After gazing at the volcano for a while, I visited the dozen stalls on top of the hill that sold kitschy souvenirs-Saigo Takamori plaques, ashtrays, posters, chopsticks, plates. But I couldn’t decide if Saigo would hate or love this stuff. Maybe he would think it was ludicrous. On the other hand, maybe he would be happy to be remembered at all. Who can tell? I eventually bought a Saigo Takamori T-shirt for 1,200 yen only to have an obasan at another stall complain to me in thick Kagoshima accent that hers were cheaper: only 1,000 yen.
I walked to the cave where he spent his last days under constant bombardment. The way twisted and turned and I got lost once. I was walking alone and I wondered where all the people were until I was passed by a bus full of tourists who had a good gawp at me as they went by. A guided bus trip of Saigo’s final days. I wondered how he would feel about that.
Near the small cave was a series of water colour paintings telling the story of the rebellion, and I gazed at the last one for some time. Painted in severe, sharp style, it was very beautiful. It was a scene of the final morning: Saigo, shot through the body, is bloody yet proud, kneeling patiently waiting to die; a faithful retainer is about to cut off his head in the climax to the ritual of seppuku, while others stand nearby in sorrow and resignation. One man’s hand covers his face, but whether he is wiping tears away or covering his eyes in horror you cannot tell. The faces in the painting are sombre, almost too simple but very eloquent. I wondered what Saigo was thinking at that time: Regret? Peace? Hope? What did he think the future of Japan would be, as he knelt there waiting for the blade?

If the rebellion had succeeded, who knows how Japan’s history could have been changed? It is tempting to fantasize, for example, that a government influenced by Saigo’s sense of respect, his sense that morality transcended narrow political or economic ends, would have steered clear of the fascist militarism that led to the disaster of the Pacific War.

Walking down the hill, I was presented with face-to-face evidence that the custom of service, at least, remains unchanged. I passed a small construction site, where cars were waiting in line to pass up the narrow street. As each car passed, a construction worker apologised and bowed so low that his helmet nearly hit the ground. Such a scene would be ridiculous in Australia, yet here it put me in a mood of deep reflection as I walked. It occurred to me that more of the samurai spirit, the paradigm of service, discipline and compassion, was becoming apparent to me every day in Japan. Maybe I just hadn’t seen it before. The tea lady in the office performing her duties of service with a selflessness I hadn’t understood. Students and staff at school who displayed a mutual respect that would be impossible in Australia. Work practices that I had initially dismissed as foolish, but in fact evidence of a level of discipline I could barely imagine. A social web of obligation and politeness that was a reflection of deep respect and a profound sense of right and wrong. Even the way Japanese care for children and the elderly seemed to me to be the result of a compassion for others that was missing in my home country.

I thought about all this as I walked to the bottom of the hill. Then I gazed back up from where I had come. The sun was bright in the sky. It was a beautiful day.

My basic life in Japan

I’ve named my car ‘Hakuchan’ which means ‘white boy’ in honour of both its colour and its usual occupant. I always drive to work.
Sometimes I’m at the Town Hall, a squat troll of a building steeped in a warm cocoon of happy uselessness. There my boss sits in his office, at the top of the status pyramid, where no work is attempted at all. His position is so ceremonial that a job description, written by me, would mention only the shredding of incoming junk mail and the persistent glaring at a stapler, dark red in colour, and, I believe, never used.
Over the last few weeks I’ve come to believe that not only is there a work inversion pyramid in Japan, where the more you are paid the less work you do, but there is also a power inversion pyramid. I say this because Reiko, the Tea Lady, outwardly submissive, hold the reins of power firmly in her capable hands. She radiates sense, strength and purpose. When she disappears for several hours, I believe she is honing her martial and mystical skills by bending spoons with her mind and flying around volcanos. I’ve also seen her use the Jedi Mind Trick on more than one occasion:
“These aren’t the documents you’re looking for”
Short pause
“These aren’t the documents we’re looking for.”
“You can go about your business.”
“We can go about our business.”
In the town hall I attempt conversation in Japanese and I access email. In addition, mindful of the diet of 116-year-old Hongo Kamato, the oldest living person in the world and a Kagoshima resident, I imbibe quantities of green tea.
I also attempt impromtu English lessons. I am a big fan of the Osmosis School of English, which argues that you can acquire English by being around it. I started by playing English songs as background music in the office; and while pleasant enough, the lyrics to Pauline Pantsdown’s “I’m a backdoor man” are a little removed from the Japanese context to be truly motivational. After that, I instructed them to sleep with a dictionary under their pillow. It has certainly improved MY second language skills, because before long I had learned the Japanese words for ‘idiotic’, ‘delusional’, and ‘psychiatrist’. Ah well, you’ve got to break down these cultural barriers…
Usually when I teach it’s in the junior high school and various primary schools. In the junior high, I’m limited to reading passages from the text so that students can listen. The English teacher, Miyamoto sensei, has certainly not been polished to the fine shine of professionalism, flexibility and technical skill of a BBC ESL teacher (Ah, how so few on this sad globe can aspire to such achievement!) But that’s okay. Time that might otherwise have been spent on preparation is (more usefully?) spent in the library, chasing the affections of the school librarian, a honey-lipped young nymph who bears no resemblance to Miss Nola, the librarian of my own sad but happily departed school days.
Primary schools are another matter. I run my own classes; and when there are only 17 students in the whole school this is not difficult. In fact, the only real inconvenience of teaching in primary schools is the real and constant threat of a surprise enema. Yes, that’s what I said. I was warned at JET orientation, but who would take such a warning seriously? Yet Japanese primary school students have a disturbing and seemingly inexplicable habit of poking two fingers up the anus, John Hopoate style, of any likely looking target that comes along. This enema, ‘kancho’ does not really penetrate clothing, but it is unpleasant to receive that kind of attention. (unless of course the administrator of said act is a leather-clad chimp-masked woman who later forces you to wear a dog collar and lick custard off her feet. Um.) I can’t put my finger on it, but somehow the kancho seems darkly symptomatic of some unholy malignancy lurking at the heart of Japanese culture. Or maybe they just like enemas.
The main tourist attractions in town are the beach and the onsen, (hot spring). At the beach I often get asked for my autograph. At first I signed a simple ‘Michael Radcliffe’, but I thought, why limit myself, so I moved onto Michael Jordan, Jabba the Hutt, and my current favourite, Nikki Webster.

I have a bit of trouble with the garbage. It sounds strange but everything has to be separated; paper, cardboard, bottles, tins, plastic, food. Those of you who know me well can guess at the enthusiasm I’ve applied to separating plastic wrappers from their bottles. Anyhow, several weeks ago, shortly after I arrived, I had the temerity, the brazenness, the gall, the impudence, the sheer bloody-minded audacity to put a used cotton bud in my food garbage. Well. The theory of karma must be true, because two days later that garbage came back to me, in the form of a white gloved old woman who knocked politely on my front door and ceremoniously returned the putrescent waste, together with the cotton bud which she held between gloved thumb and forefinger. So how did she know the garbage was mine? It may have been the fact my name was written on it, a humiliating procedure not only followed by other residents, but also enforced by Jedi Master Reiko herself, and thus not to be resisted.

In conclusion, I am ready to unleash one those amazing insights, those profound clarifications, those cutting elucidation for which I am justly famed. Are you ready? It is this:

Japan is different. Yes I know I risk controversy with such outrageously provocative and inflammatory rhetoric, but I stand by it. Despite being here before, the inexplicable, confusing and frustrating (and wonderful) things still happen. Where do disposable chopsticks come from? Why can’t I swim at my beach? How does the economy survive when nobody works? Why are rockmelons $50? Why did they spend two hours drawing me a map of the supermarket? Why does everybody love the Carpenters and who are they anyway?

Running around a volcano.

The Sakurajima marathon was my first attempt at jogging in the company of other people.

For me, running is an intensely private experience: the pounding of blood in the ears, the beating of theheart, the sweet sweat in the eyes. It’s a personal indulgence, like a chocolate binge or sleeping in on the weekend. But Kim’s invitation to join hundreds of others was so eloquent, elegant and promising I could not resist- and I had visions of jumping over bubbling lava pools, choking on ash, being petrified over thousands of years like the victims of Pompeii…cool.

I eagerly signed up for the 10 km course. Unfortunately I ran into some red tape before the race. I had had the impertinence to send in the entry form a week too late, and the repercussions of this act continue, to this day, to haunt me. At registration my appearance unleashed such blind panic among officials that at first I thought my gaikokujin card must bear the name of Osama Bin Laden. People were running around, faxing each other, calling, screaming, downing vodka shots, beating their chests and playing janken to see who would have to deal with such a scurrilous troublemaker as myself. Ofcourse I am exaggerating a bit here; my immediate interlocutor was a jovial giant who was nothing but pure kindness. Nevertheless I knew he would not berunning- he must have weighed at least 130 kgs- a small hippo who resembled a sumo wrestler. Not that I would insinuate that sumowrestlers aren’t athletes. After all, they follow a strict training regime... consisting of the consumptionof two buckets of KFC and a five-kilo cheesecake daily.

Following registration we had a warm-up session lasting longer than the race itself. That was no problem, because it allowed me to become thoroughly bored with the whole thing and go home. Just a joke, sorry. The actual race went off without much problem, and I was happy with my time, except for one moment, around the 6 km mark, when I was passed by an old man, contemptuous of my (relative) youth, who looked like Grandpa Simpson, except that if anything he was even more wrinkled and leathery.

Oh, there is one more thing worth mentioning: by the 8 km mark, long after I had reconciled myself to not being overrun by a river of boiling lava, I began to feel high. The jogging high is a good one, and I recommend it to anyone who has not experienced it, or who can't afford cocaine. It’s a happy kind of drifting euphoria, not unlike an orgasm, but softer and longer (similar to an orgasm also in the sense that it is usually experienced without company!). Indeed I understand that the further you run, the stronger is the high. Judging from how I feel after 10 kms, people who complete a full marathon must be high as a kite. Come to think of it, have you ever seen a marathon runner being interviewed just after he finishes? The stuttering, the disorientation, the trembling? He’s not just tired, he’s off his dial. So I drove home feeling very nice indeed. I shall certainly be back next year, lava or not. I may even do the full marathon. Just for the challenge, mind you.

The Second Dragonboat

Initially I thought I would have trouble recruiting 20 people for this year's boating, especially as I had encountered various problems with my town bureacracy. However, at the mention of the phrases 'unlimited alcohol' and 'floor orgy' the masses soon showed up.

We made it the Dome Party on time and received vouchers entitling us to food and booze. The later especially contributed to general feelings of completeness and harmony. I decided to mingle with the locals.My shougakkou kids greeted me with the traditional, time-honoured greeting reserved for ALTS since the inception of the JET program- that is, they stuck two fingers up my arse. Personally, I have to say I have always found the Japanese propensity for enemas somewhat disturbing-after all, who needs that kind of attention from somebody not well-lubed? The act is very suspicious; and it has occured to me that it is darkly symptomatic of some unholy malignancy lying deep within the heart of Japanese culture.

Or maybe they just like enemas.

I also let those same kids have free reign with my electronic dictionary- thus widening their vocabulary to include 'piss', 'poo' and `snot'. Being pleased with my contribution to international understanding, I went on to raise pulses when I was coerced into joining the libidinous traditional dance on display. (Later that night I heard Jesse, drunk and happy, accosting the shy Japanese boy I invited to my house, "Teach me the sex dance!!Teach me the sexdance!" Tanozo replied "I don't know!I don't know!""Uso!!" responded Jesse). There is one other incident worth mentioning at the Dome. At one stage the Kagoshima governor, having found his view of the stage blocked by a mass of gaijin surrounded by giggling school girls, sent an attendant to disperse the offendants. Mike Richter, drunk with third-year Jet cynicism, said to the attendant something along the lines of "Tell that overpaid seat warmer to get off his fat arse if hewants to see. This is not a Russian snack bar, youknow".

Having spread love and joy all around us, Jets fromKagoshima and Miyazaki congregated drunkenly at theneighbourhood Lawson, where the staff were so confused by so many gaijin they began giving out chopsticks with beer and heating up orange juice in the microwaveoven. About the final party at my luxurious abode I drank somuch alcohol the only thing I remember for sure is that I spent an inordinate amount of time licking Lauren's breasts. Admittedly she wasn't wearing them at the time, but the more people passed them around the more I couldn't resist. My fascination with her ichi-en clad armoured bazongas can probably be explained by the fact I was bottle-fed as I child. OrI could be just perverted and sick. What do youthink? By the way Sam Farmer, did not, at least to myknowledge, expose her breasts. I do have a vague memory that Dan was speaking gibberish. For example: Me: How's it going Dan? Dan: Those horses lips get me growing, dig! Me:Pardon? Dan: As with coccoon, man. Lipsickle's whales had them preserendipitously...

The actual dragonboat races the following day went offwithout too many hitches. Clouds in the morning cleared up as the day went on. The guys were up first, and with confidence and the benefit of hundreds of training hours we powered our way towards...last place. Mike Richter eschewed the morally and creatively bankrupt typical slow drumbeat and followed his own private rhythm, providing a truly inspirational melody."Why is our drummer on acid?" asked Leon. The ladies team also performed well, and I breathed a sigh of relief when both teams made it safely to the starting line instead of drifing off to the middle ofthe river like...usual. The Miyazaki Jets also reported an improvement on last year because nobody was masturbating as the women were getting into theboat. That's right. Last year, apparently, a local lad had been unable to resist the urge to pull out his 10-inch, blue-veined red-cherry-topped honey stirrer and give it a good thrashing.

I have to admit there was one moment that was unmistakably sexual, at least for me. When the nurse team was coming in to land, getting out of the boat, dripping with water...well...when that happened, thenurses' uniforms combined with Mindy's soft goldenlocks, Lauren's armour-clad breasts, and former AJET president Ellen's legendary gravity-defying posterior, and I...SAW...GOD.

Well, thanks everybody for coming, I hope to see youall next year.

I am not the only one with a Useless Job!

I have no special news today, so instead I will tell you about the principal at the junior high school, let's call him Mr Tanaka.

In keeping with the Japanese work inversion principal,
Principal Miyata, being the top guy at school, has nothing at all to do.

He got transferred at the beginning of the year, and the previous principal had cornered the
plumb job of gardening, which was a beautiful job- answerable to noone, gets compliments, lots of fresh air. But between principals the sly vice-principle, Yoshida san, grabbed the gardening duties so that, together with his usual job of serving tea to visitors, the vice principal almost has enough to fill the day.

That has left Miyata with nothing except aisatsu.

Aisatsu translates to English as 'greetings' but that simple word does not begin to communicate the complex behaviour, intricate obligations and verbal intricacies of Japanese aisatsu. It can go on for 40 minutes, and Miyata san makes it go for an hour. He loves to meet me because he has a chance to welcome me, inquire about my health, and exhort me to further energetic endeavours in my non-existent teaching role.

Lately we've been truly bonding, because we have so much in common- a respectable but purely ceremonial position in the school, an excess of free time, and a lack of power to change our fates. So now he says, 'Let's drink coffee' which he loves because he gets to kill another half hour before he has to go back to his empty office to contemplate cutting his wrists for the
rest of the day.

Occasionally I do have to go to class...
on those occasions I am forced to politely refuse his invitation: 'Ah, I am so sorry Mr Miyata Principal, I am unable to have coffee with you, I am actually a little busy, um, I have to go to class...'
'Ah, please go ahead' he answers but you can see the light going out of his eyes, the hope falling from his face and the endless dark prison of boredom descending once again upon his soul. He is surely the saddest figure I have ever met in Japan and his situation goes a long way to explain the mediocrity I see around me- if you are successful as a teacher, you will get promoted- and that means...death. Death of your career, your self-respect, your status with your peers.

Meanwhile I study Japanese, chat with the library girl and muck around with the kids who have taken to calling me 'baldy'. My duties are, shall we say...light. I had this conversation at the beginningof the year:

'Can I help prepare lessons?'
'Ah, no'
'Can I start an English club?'
'No'
'Can I have my own class?
'No'
'Can I join a school sports team?'
'No'
'Can I help with the school play?'
'No'
'What can I do?'
'Um, internetto'

Lucky I got that Master's in Linguistics, eh?! I'd be
lost without that!

But they still pay me 4000 bucks a month with free
accommodation etc.

At the beginning I actually felt guilty until I
realised about Miyata san and the others, who get paid
a lot more than I do. But of course, their aisatsu is
WAY better.

The First Dragonboat Race

Dragonboating

Know, O Prince, that in the far south of the Osumi Peninsula lies a land undreamed of, a land of misty forests and ripe rice fields spread like gray mantles beneath the stars. There, in distant Nejime, every year gather the greatest dragon warriors to battle the elements, the Gods and each other for Glory alone.

And so Saturday evening saw us, gathered and united, at the Dome where free food and beer awaited us. Free, that is, except for one important catch-we needed to sing a song. Despite the fine and universally lauded choice of song that had been made, some trepidation existed in our group, and indeed it was only rivalry with the Miyazaki JETS that forced us to go through with it all. The Miyazakis were tough men and women, bred for generations to be dragon boat warriors. By all accounts they had been training for years, running through brick walls, chopping wood with their bare hands, and mediating under ice cold waterfalls. But they didn’t scare us. Rather, we deemed them to be karaoke-stealing, mini-skirted, fake-smiled, over-blond, over-muscled and over-here foreigners. They would pay for daring to step foot in our ken without first groveling face down for several hours in a large bathtub full of natto.

Well, someone did pay. However, it may have been the good people of Nejime, judging by the visages of horror and blank incomprehension which met us as we gutted the soundtrack to ‘Armageddon’. It followed so naturally from the high school big band, was such a match in tone, professionalism and quality that at this very moment I am looking over my shoulder anxiously, waiting for the school leopard to rip my throat out and prevent future shameful episodes.

After the party we returned, rebuffed from karaoke, to my house. Quantities of alcohol were imbibed. And as the Miyazaki team’s efforts to infiltrate our community of sexually desirable and socially advanced individuals was successfully and permanently rebuffed, we proceeded to enjoy ourselves. The highlight of the evening, possibly, was when one ALT, who shall remain nameless*, took it upon herself to test the puke-absorbing qualities of my tatami, and only the timely application of salt saved it from permanent ignominy.

The salt cleansing was no accident. It was, indeed, a deliberate invocation of supernatural power, ultimately inspired by the traditional purification rituals of Japan itself. It is thus a metaphor for, and a reflection of, our own personal journeys in understanding and accepting this ancient culture. Dave’s existentialist action forces us to confront deeply rooted attitudes towards Japan, and raises a challenging question: have you cleaned the puke from your own inner tatami mat?

The next morning a determined group of adventurers, hangover not withstanding, marched to the riverside, and girt themselves with warpaint and expressions of such ferocity that individual children will remain terrified of gaijin for decades to come. Hours of intense strategy discussions followed. Behind us the first battles raged; and dragon blood fell from the sky like rain as we planned our assault. Arrows and circles were drawn with sticks in the sand; pincer movements, encirclements, missile weapons and assassinations were proposed and rejected.
Our first team must have been blessed by the Gods. Initial trepidation gave way to excitement as the race began and when we saw we were in with a chance we gave it all we had. Dave powered us with drumbeats; Leon dreamed of a prow-mounted caterpault; Malia and Mindy transformed into Amazons and Amy gamely wiped puke from her hair as she paddled. Sweat glistened like quicksilver on our muscles and men and women all over Kagoshima fainted from excitement. Dave Williams, destined for this hour the moment he was born, steered us unerringly towards glory. The Force is strong in that one. And for one, brief shining moment, we were all thrusting together, all shouting and plunging and straining and groaning and chanting. Like an orgy. Only not.

And the victory achieved? The great goal for which we had strained and suffered and bled and sacrificed and strived? Noone who was there that glorious day will forget the honour we earned: The Immortal Glory of Nearly Beating The Nurses.

Unfortunately, in the face of such triumph, such success, it takes no holy prophet, no blind seer, no Delphic Oracle to predict the sad fate of our successors; the weight of such impossible expectations would be too heavy a burden for any mortals to bear. The second boat seemed plagued with problems from the beginning. Weight was unevenly distributed. Tricky winds. Gravity warps. Sexual tension. A sheep that Michael had managed to smuggle aboard. Whatever the cause, helpless shorebound observers watched as the boat drifted to the middle of the river. Commands, shouts, screams and an occasional ‘baaa!’ could be heard. Factions formed, leaders rose from the chaos. People huddled in small groups for comfort and warmth. Mai had to be rescued from the rudder, which appeared to be possessed, a kind of nautical Linda Blair. In fact, such were the problems that fine ship faced, it seemed to be having some difficulty reaching the starting line, and was last seen heading towards Ibusuki.

We loved those fine young men and women.
We will miss them dearly.

I must admit, however, to having the time of my life, and invite everyone capable of doing so to return next year.



Even the Miyazaki team.






Maybe.



Yours,

Michael


* Amy Price

Rural Life in Kagoshima, or Living with the Gollums

Living in rural Kagoshima

This is my third year living in the Kagoshima countryside, down at the bottom of the Osumi Peninsula; and I have experienced the best and the worst it has to offer. At its worst, the deep cold of January serves to intensify the sense of isolation and alienation felt by a foreigner living in the Japanese countryside. But at its best the sky is a shining blue mantle that arcs over the animals and birds at play in your garden, and you are enveloped by the warm cocoon of local friendship and generosity that city dwellers can only dream about.
It is impossible to forget the people here. The first attribute you notice is their generosity and warmth. Neighbors who take down your washing when rain threatens, fold it and put it in your hallway. The unexpected (and sometimes anonymous) presents on your doorstep. A bag of potatoes from a farmer you meet in the fields. Green tea served for you in the cool shade of a summer roadside stall by an obachan unable to speak a word of English. You greet her in Japanese, and she will reply with a long string of impenetrable Kagoshima ben.
Even when you are able to have a conversation the results can sometimes be confusing. Once, on a sultry summer afternoon, I fell into conversation with a frail old man leading a large frisky bull down a lonely country lane.
“Where are taking the bull?” I asked.
“To the next farm to stud the cows.” He answered.
“Shouldn’t your son be doing that?” I asked.
He looked at me strangely and said, “Maybe…but it’s probably better if the bull does it.” And stared at me stony-faced as I broke down laughing.
There certainly aren’t many young people to do the heavy work in the countryside. What with the general decline in fertility, and the escape of the 18-45 demographic to the cities, the only people left are a few children and the mass of the elderly. A visit to the local onsen will likely make you feel young and beautiful, because compared to the other people in the bath you still are. The onsen in my town is particularly steamy, and you will be sitting there, wrapped in a cloak of mist, when suddenly the steam will clear, and two meters from you is a being that closely resembles Gollum, all thin and toothless and wrinkled with a few lank strands of hair lying flat on an otherwise bald pate.
But seriously, it is a wonderful place to live. Imagine a warm summer evening at a neighborhood barbecue. Kinko Bay and Sakurajima lie in the distance. A glass of chilled shochu is in your hand and you are listening to and old man tell a vivid tale of old Satsuma. The delicious smell of roasting beef and fresh vegetables fills the air, and you are flooded with the intoxicating feeling of being a part of a beautiful and vibrant culture. On nights like that, it is easy to forget you are two and a half hours away from a cinema or decent coffee, and you would rather be in the Kagoshima countryside than anywhere else in the world.

Rural Primary School Entrance Ceremony

In the Japanese countryside there is a surplus of education and a deficit of students. This is maninly due to kaso, depopulation in the countryside. Combined with the Japanese tendency towards excessive formality, this results in a near-death experience for the unwilling visitor.

At Miyata shougakkou, the mass of useless and mind-numbing ritual only accentualtes the reality- that an entrance ceremony with two students, who cannot understand anything that happens, is absurd, a travesty of education. Perhaps in the golden-warm daydream idyll of AmamiOshima, entrance ceremonies are held on the beachunder swaying palm trees. Topless local wenches serve tumblers of warm shochu to picnicking teachers. The new kids frolic along the surf, laughing in the tropical sun. In the evening, a warm tropical breeze washes over couples entwined together in the sand. That's Omami Oshima, right?

But in Nejime things are a little different. First there is the tea time, when the kyoikuinkai staff andthe PTA meet in the principal's office to brood over awkward silences. Any visiting ALT looks around in vain for a woman who is not holding a tea pot or someone under the age of 60. Traditional sweets lay determinedly untouched on the table (in my first year, such was my naivety that I actually attempted to eat one of these nightmares. I was the center of glaring silence for five minutes as I grimly consumed my way through the sticky mess). Then we make our way to the school hall where the twenty PTA and twenty other guests, none of whom know the names of any kids at the school, sit themselves in grey formal lines of approaching senility. The forty dark suits accompany varying degrees of baldness, dementia and poor dental work. On the other side sit the teachers, and in between are the school kids, who have trained extensively to perform 'entrance ceremony duties'. A productive use of school time, of course; any suggestion that kids should be learning skills that allow them to deal flexibly and confidently with a changing and dynamic world being the mere ramblings of a foreigner who should respect Japanese culture more.

A round of orchestrated applause greets the incoming new first years, those two poor kids who just might, in their as-yet-mostly-underveloped minds, have some growing realisation as to the sheer number of boring ceremonies their future life holds. The bewildered5-year-olds sit down, outnumbered 20-1 by guests and picking their noses furiously. On the stage, the school flag and the Japanese flag are hung side by side. Next to the podium is an extravagant two-metre flower arrangement, the price of which would probably have been enough to pay for a tsunami warning centerin the Indian ocean a couple of years ago. The ceremony is officially opened by the Japanese national anthem, the suicide-inducing dirge that must surely partly explain Japan's high rate of self-inflicted death. "Hey, don't know why so manyJapanese off themeselves? Listen to this!" Then follows the speeches, which is where Hell really begins. "No, Mr Evangelical Christian, your threats ofEternal Damnation do not scare me! I've been to a Japanese school entrance ceremony!" Principal,Vice-principal, PTA president, vice-president, kyouikuchyou, class sensei, random kid, homeless guy(Oh, wait, he's the mayor!), each taking 10 minutes and all repetitions of the same theme: gambate, studyhard, have a good time, do us proud. One of the kids started happily eating his own snot halfway through the first speech; the embalmed mummy on my right revealed he was alive by softly snoring; and I passed the time thinking about entrance ceremonies on AmamiOshima...

After the ceremony selected 'lucky guests' were coerced back to the principal's office for more tea. The principal complained eloquently about having to combine classes because classes were too small. I refrained from observing that in Australia (or indeed,any country that doesn't have too much money for its own good) a school with 17 students would have achallenging time staying open altogether. Lurking oppressive but unspoken behind the discussion was the phenomenon of kaso itself, the ultimate causeof Miyata shougakkou's problems. But that's anothertopic entirely.