Cultural Participation

Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I have now been in Japan for a month, a fact that both my students and I find almost impossible to believe. Me, because time is already beginning to absolutely fly by here. My students, because I am such a great teacher that they think I must have invented the profession.

One of the above statements is true. Answers on a postcard...

I am not sure I will ever "settle down" as such here. The pace of city life in Japan, and the constant in-and-out of teachers in the mind-boggling entity that is the Nova Corporation, both provide an ever-shifting backdrop to an ever-shifting foreground. But, as much as it is possible, I am beginning to settle in. If anything, I have actually found that process easier than I had anticipated. Prior to my departure, everything I had read and everyone I had consulted suggested that Japan was so unforgivingly different that I feared death for so much as a mistimed bow or a misplaced chopstick. However, for all its many, many differences, Japan is a very forgiving place to a naive yet polite young gentleman such as myself. Little faux pas seem to be forgiven far more readily than I anticipated, and Japanese people are both eager and patient with outsiders who wish to learn about their intricate and sophisticated culture.

Making Japanese friends is a little more difficult. Without Nihongo (ie the Japanese language), I am pretty limited in that regard. I walk around greater Tokyo like a poorly subtitled movie, provoking much amusement with my awful Japanese, but not as yet stimulating any great or deep discussions. No doubt this will change as time goes on and I learn more, especially as I am keen to avoid walling myself off into an English-speaking world while I am here.

So, after one month, I am already a fully-fledged English Language Instructor and disseminator of cultural knowledge to my eager students. I teach at a Nova branch in Yoga (see below), an affluent suburb of south-east Tokyo.

As you can probably imagine the "joke" that I teach at Yoga school is already wearing very thin. I suspect it would simply non-plus my students, who would laugh politely and wonder why they were paying for this idiot in a suit to giggle at his own incoherent mumblings. Anyway, as an area, you might say that Yoga was the Japanese equivalent of St John's Wood in London or the Hollywood hills in LA. On my first day I was told that Yoga was the wealthiest residential area in Japan, and was home to many stars of stage, screen and, er, guitar. Of course, my knowledge of Japanese popular culture is at present about as deep as my love of Virgin Trains, so I could be teaching anyone when I walk into the room. I doubt that any seriously big stars would seek to learn through the most high-profile language school in the country, but I do have some interesting students nonetheless. One designs and animates the characters in the video game franchise, The Sims. Another is a concert pianist who plays all over the world, and who so far has come into classes very jet lagged. I also teach a guy who is a baseball commentator on national TV. I don't think he is quite yet the Japanese equivalent of John Motson, although that has not stopped us trying to make him the equivalent of Murray Walker. He has been looking for an English catchphrase to whip out whenever someone hits a home run. Traditionally, commentators here apparently shout a translation of the American favourite "going... going... gone." In future, however, if you ever hear an excited commentator's voice screaming "going... going..." in Japanese and then "GOD BLESS BASEBALL!!" in English, you will know that we have secured a small place in sporting folklore.

Teaching in Japan seems to be a relatively easy task. Students here are very keen to learn, but also to share their own knowledge as a means of practicing and developing their language skills. Consequently, I feel that I learn as much from them as they learn from me, and this has been a great way to start understanding what to do and what to avoid. Recommendations for places to visit and restaurants and izakaya to sample have literally poured in. One student even bins the textbook lessons in favour of telling me about the Kamakura and Edo periods of Japanese history - a very interesting if unexpected insight.

As a brand-new teacher, I found it quite disturbing that a large percentage of students' files listed karaoke as an interest. Indeed, I thought I had walked into my worst nightmare when, on my third day, I was invited to a fellow-teacher's leaving party, including all-night singing along to a machine that plays poor recordings of other people's art. In front of my colleagues I vowed never to participate in this unfortunate element of Japanese culture. I should have picked up on their knowing smiles, and their smug assurances that my vow carried little weight, and I should have known then that I was doomed. Several hours later, yours truly was belting out "interesting" translations of Frank Sinatra, Oasis, and even the spoken parts of Blur's Parklife, at 4am in front of a room full of people I barely knew, in a random suburb of a megalopolis thousands of miles from home, having consumed large quantities of a maroon-coloured liquid whose constitution I am still clueless about. To the surprise of no one but myself, it was a perfect irasshaimase (ie welcome) to Japan.

A more tranquil practice involves going to izakaya in the evenings. These are sort of traditional Japanese hostelries where you take off your shoes, sit on the floor, and eat at ankle-high tables. As socialising in the home is not an option here (Japanese apartments are very small and people greatly value peace and quiet), izakaya are usually the places where people meet to eat and drink. This is something I could get very used to - they are relatively cheap, as most dining out here is, and serve a bewildering array of excellent food that groups share around the table. The only problem is that they appear not to have been designed with my proportions in mind. I met up with some friends at a local place on Saturday night and found myself pinned further and further in the corner as more people showed up after work. Sitting opposite my almost-as-tall Canadian flatmate ensured that my options were limited to either stretching under the table and playing footsie with his nether regions, or taking the hit and hoping that my legs did not develop gangreen by the time we left. Attractive though the former option was, I chose the latter. Much to my relief, feeling returned to my legs sometime yesterday afternoon.

Much as I expected, therefore, there are some things in Japan that were not really meant for a 6'3" gai-jin such as myself. But then again, I did not think it would be meant for a shy, karaoke-loathing Brit with a singing voice like a boisterous cat being tortured. And look how quickly that changed: I am ashamed to say I managed my second all-nighter on the mike after work yesterday. Well, you've got to at least try to get involved, right?
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