Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Ultimate Winter Redskin

(No, the title of this post is not meant to deride Native Americans of the First Nations, nor does it have anything to do with any sports team.)

I'm in the music office at the academy. As I have been so much over the past month, I am seated behind that cool-looking G5 transferring the orchestral score of the suite of tunes from DragonQuest IV (yes, the TV game) to individual sheet music. That thing is bloody LONG; eleven movements (twelve if you count "Balloon Ride" and "Sea Breeze" as separate, because they really are), each about five to six minutes in length. Then there's all those notes. Long, sustained tones make for fast work, but even with all of Sibelius' hot keys, lots of sixteenth notes, funky rhythms, and sex- or septuplets make for some bloody tedious work. The end is in sight, but I'm really starting to feel worn out by this.

Then Mr. Ogawa walks over to the refrigerator, on top of which a pot is bubbling atop a sort of electric hot plate. He takes the lid off, and a wonderful smell begins to fill the room. My spirits raise along with the waft of steam. Good things are coming soon. It's a seasonal snack that I've fortunately been enjoying a lot while hopefully not giving myself repetitive stress syndrome. It is...

...sweet potatoes...?

The native sweet potato is called satsumaimo (薩摩芋) in Japanese. The first two Chinese characters (which are too difficult for most Japanese to remember, so they usually use phonetic kana instead), which read "Satsuma" (lit. "Touching Buddha"), come from the name of an ancient province which used to span the southern part of the island of Kyushu. The third character means "(sweet) potato", and it also appears in the word jagaimo (literally "Jakarta potato", since they were originally imported from Indonesia), which means "potato" as we understand it in the West.

Satsumaimo seem to be one of the last crops harvested during the year, as mid autumn is when the neighbors suddenly start showing up with boxloads of them (a fringe benefit of living in farm country). The fact that they keep very well all through the winter means that there is always a good supply of them clear through till spring.

There are many different ways of preparing sweet potatoes here, too. Sliced and boiled is, of course, the most common for the dinner table, but many recipes exist for preparing everything from sweet potato candy to mashed sweet potatoes combined with chestnuts (a New Year dish that we always enjoy). However, since long ago, by far the most common (and most fun) way to eat satsumaimo is to wrap them up in foil (or in the old-fashioned way, i.e. leaves) and toss them in a pile of raked-up fallen autumn leaves, burn the pile, and then dig out the cooked sweet potatoes and eat them. These surprisingly enjoyable treats are called simply "yakiimo" (lit. "cooked potato"). It is also quite common to make yakiimo during winter by wrapping up sweet potatoes in foil and leaving them on top of the stove alongside of a kettle of water, allowing you to heat your room and enjoy tea and snacks all in one go!

It is also an old tradition to slice and dry sweet potatoes, making a snack that looks something like greenish-gold jerky but has a flavor all its own. One of the English teachers at my school always brings a box of them on Entrance Exam Day (tinny, diminished seventh fanfare) so we have something a bit more wholesome than chocolate and rice crackers to munch on while marking tests.

Actually, Mr. Ogawa has been steaming his satsumaimo this year using an interesting method that he improvised himself. Apparently his family got more of them than they knew what to do with, so, in classic Monsieur Ogawa style, he decided to try something new. He has been using an interesting combination of a saucepan, a ceramic bowl, a quantity of water, and careful tweaking around of the temperature setting at different times to produce something that is a bit firmer and more flavorful than the usual baked or broiled variety. (Viva le Maestro!) He has been anxiously trying out his new recipe on as much of the faculty as possible. There have been a few naysayers among the more stone-headed traditionalists, but for the most part the reaction has been good.

I know I'm enjoying these things!

Now I wonder if I should give him the bagful of them from my in-laws...

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

That is "Happy New Year" in Cantonese, one of the dialects of Chinese. In Mandarin Chinese (spoken in Beijing as well as Taiwan) it is pronounced "Xin nian yu kuai." This weekend was the Chinese New Year. I thought I would honor my wonderful, growing circle of Chinese friends by acknowledging that fact here.

As with the New Year here in Japan, which is now based on the Western calendar, the Chinese New Year, based on the lunar cycle, is perhaps the biggest festival event in Eastern Asia. As with the Japanese, Chinese families celebrate it by gathering their families together and having a celebration with special foods particular to the event. It is also customary to make a visit to a temple to pray for the new year.

Fireworks and the color red can also be seen all over. Interestingly, this tradition apparently originated in the belief that a supernatural creature called "nian", which could sneak into houses and eat people, was driven away by loud noises and the color red. On the eve of the New Year, the people do their utmost to send nian packing!

More info can be acquired here.

I would also invite you to have a peek at the pictures on the blogs of my Malaysian Chinese friend "Low" and my Singaporean Chinese friend "Robin".

(To Low and Robin, 恭喜發財, and I hope you don't mind me posting this!)

Correction: It has been brought to my attention by one of my Chinese friends that I've made an error. "Gong Xi Fa Cai" is, in fact, the Mandarin. In Cantonese the same greeting is "Kong Hei Fatt Choy". The Mandarin expression I gave, which was produced by a web search, does mean "Happy New Year", but it is a different greeting altogether. I apologize for the misunderstanding. I guess this just goes to show you that online search engines are no replacement for people with direct experience in the real world.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Tearing Down the Gates of Japan

No, I'm not talking about gates in a literal or metaphorical sense. I'm talking about Gates. As in Bill Gates. Japan's analogous equivalent has just met a very unexpectedly stinky fate.

Takafumi Horie was born to a typical, mail-order businessman & housewife family down in Kyushu. In high school, though obviously bright, he was something of a troublesome student. The problem was that he was more interested in pursuing his own projects than participating in class or doing his homework. He was a whiz with computers and electronics, but his grades were consistently near rock bottom.

In his senior year, with graduation drawing near, he suddenly decided he wanted to enter Tokyo University, Japan's most prestigious institute of higher education. He then spent a couple of months in intensive study, whereupon he not only caught up with his classmates, but left them behind. He passed "To-dai's" brutal entrance exam with flying colors.

He became a liberal arts major at Tokyo University and intended to concentrate on religion. However, before his first year was over, he dropped out (citing "boredom") and, together with his friends, formed a website development business called "Livin' on the Edge" in the mid 90s. After a few years it grew to become an internet provider and networking outfit called LiveDoor. Not long after the turn of the century, LiveDoor had become quite a power player in Japan's business scene, investing in a wide range of businesses and projects and even trying (but failing) to acquire a professional baseball team.

Horie was never popular in Japan's corporate society because he was the antithesis of everything they stood for. He rarely wore a suit, refused to wear a necktie, and often appeared at official events in a T-shirt. Although he lost the long hair he sported in his younger days, he came to sport a spikey hairdo. His manner was also brash...even arrogant. He had no respect for ettiquette or protocol, and he tended to speak in a very rough, in-your-face way. Younger generations saw him as a hero, but he was more like a villain to the old guard. He was seen as a black sheep in the world of big business in these islands, but in many ways he was more like a black knight. He was unstoppable...and he had few scruples.

Unlike Bill Gates, Horie never involved himself much with charity or international causes. However, he threw himself into his dreams tooth and toenail. First, in accordance with his stated plan to render traditional media "obsolete", he tried to take over broadcasting giant Fuji TV by buying a huge lump of its shares after trading had officially ended. Doing so technically gave him controlling interest, and there were no laws in place to stop him, but corporate Japan immediately cried foul and rallied against him. After much lobbying, it was decided that Horie would not take over Fuji TV but would become one of its executives. (After that, Japanese investment laws were hastily revised before he could try a similar stunt.) After that media feeding frenzy was over, he started becoming involved in politics, which made people start watching him very closely. Perhaps they watched him closer than he intended, because the axe finally fell.

Not long after the dawn of 2006 it was announced that an investigation had revealed several...irregularities...about the way LiveDoor had been doing business. Accountants there had been cooking the books, exaggerating earnings in order to drive up stock prices. At the same time, LiveDoor's various subsidiaries were buying enormous amounts of stock in targeted firms, often to the point of bankrupting themselves, and then selling them to LiveDoor itself at a huge loss. The result was that LiveDoor was acquiring control of businesses at a phenomenal rate while conveniently sidestepping the new laws. Even more conveniently, LiveDoor's chief economic advisor killed himself as soon as these facts came to light.

The law wasn't amused. Horie was arrested last Monday on a number of charges, and he has now formally resigned as CEO of LiveDoor. Tokyo's stock index immediately plummeted, and even the government is in shock (since Horie was a staunch ally of PM Koizumi). The media feeding frenzy is still very nauseatingly in progress. Many are calling it the end of a (remarkably short) era.

Even so, Horie is down, but he's not out. I'm sure that, like the Terminator, he'll be back.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Speaking of Computers

When I bought my first personal computer, which was just a few months before the release of Windows 95, one of the first things I decided was not to become a slave of Microsoft. For a number of reasons, I also chose not to take the Apple route. Instead, I bought an IBM (cr)Aptiva preinstalled with IBM's own OS/2 Warp operating system.

There were a lot of things I really liked about OS/2 (and would probably still like if I still used it). It was a very powerful, configurable, adaptable, and stable system. It was (and is still) also immune to almost all internet viruses. However, like Linux, it wasn't as "idiot proof" as Macintosh or the most recent versions of Windows. In other words, you sometimes had to get your hands dirty by dealing with text codes or making configuration changes manually. That meant a greater risk of pilot error. Still, I actually found that to be a plus, as it offered a great deal of versatility.

Unfortunately, from the very beginning I had compatibility problems as the computer world was hesitant to embrace OS/2, and IBM was doing a piss-poor job of promoting and supporting it anyway. At first it wasn't such a big deal; some DOS games wouldn't work with the sound card. A few Windows programs (mainly games) wouldn't work at all. That didn't present a problem to me. However, I ran into device driver trouble from the start. First Canon Japan responded to my request for an OS/2 printer driver by giving me the usual air-sucked-through-teeth followed by, "Most people use Windows, so we only support Windows. Maybe you should consider using Windows, too, like everyone else!" (I then contacted Canon U.S.A., who responded to the same request by making me a printer driver! God bless American service!) Then, when I switched to an ISDN internet connection in 1997, I called IBM's service center to ask about a device driver for my DSU (ISDN modem). Once again I got air-sucked-through-teeth followed by, "Well, people in Japan generally only use Windows in their home computers, so perhaps you should do the same." (I then contacted my phone/internet company, who sent an OS/2 specialist to my house to set me up! God bless NTT!) Despite these headaches, though, I stubbornly maintained my (cr)Aptiva OS/2 setup at home even while using a Windows 95 laptop at work.

After another year, it became clear that the (cr)Aptiva, with its 486DX4/100 processor, simply didn't have enough oomph to keep up with modern internet demands. I kept the machine where it was to use for desktop publishing and games, and I bought a Fujitsu laptop with Windows 98 to use as my internet communication system. During the first two years that it served in this role the operating system self-destructed and had to be completely reinstalled (along with everything else on the C partition) at least four times even though I never mucked with it. I then upgraded it to Windows 2000, which ran without any trouble whatsoever for another year (though getting all my devices working was a bit of a chore at first). I probably would have continued using it as my communication station, but then the hard drive in the (cr)Aptiva suddenly freaked out and put OS/2 out of commission once and for all. I decided not to bother trying to fix. Instead, I got this Sony Vaio with Windows XP that I'm still using now.

I guess I'm now firmly in the Windows camp, something reinforced a couple of years ago when a college buddy of mine who works at Microsoft came to visit me here in Japan. I mentioned that I've always been a sucker for handmade items, especially if they're made by someone I know. He immediately reminded me that he's a member of the team that created Windows NT, 2000, and XP (but NOT, as he pointed out, Windows 98, which he laughingly called an "inferior product"). I guess he's got me there.

However, the computer I'm using the most at work right now is an Apple G5 running Mac OS X (i.e. Linux)!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Back in the Game

Well, it turns out that my e-mail problem was not what I expected at all. It was much more serious.

I discovered that not only my e-mail, but all of my automatic online updates (Windows, Norton AntiVirus and Firewall) were out as well. I also noticed that the firewall was being awfully quiet (since it usually flashes signals in the margins). I tried to look at the firewall log, and the program froze up and wouldn't exit...just like Netscape Mail. The Windows error management system also crashed.

NAV still insisted there was no virus, but after studying the Symantec virus database I got brave and checked out my Windows registry...and found it full of tweaks. Basically the whole security and update setup was disabled. I gritted my teeth and tried to reset them manually, but at least a couple of key entries were missing altogether. It appears to have been a suicide bombing; it came and left, leaving me defenseless.

I went ahead and reinstalled, but it turned out to be much easier than what I had to deal with with Windows 98. I didn't want to bother with my old version of WinXP and having to update it online, so I bought a new version. It essentially rewrote my existing system (clearing out about 2 gb of dead weight on my exhausted C drive) without touching anything else. That saved a load of time and trouble. I did go ahead and replace Netscape with a full Mozilla setup and get rid of Norton once and for all. Now things are looking a lot better. It's great to be back.

So...should I reinstall Webshots now?

Saturday, January 21, 2006


This is the second time this month that I've gotten up early because my school was hosting entrance exams.

This is also the second time this month that I've opened the curtains in the morning to find the world covered with white. That's right...we got snowed on again. In fact, we got the biggest snowstorm this area has seen in decades.

Fortunately, when I headed out (immediately, skipping breakfast) it hadn't been snowing long. It was also warm enough that the main roads were slushy but not frozen. That made for much easier driving than last time, when the roads were a mass of black ice. Perhaps unfortunately, even on the little back road we live on there wasn't enough snow to merit putting on the tire chains I bought yesterday (the last set left for my BLUE car's tire size...and, wouldn't you know it, it was the most expensive). I just took things slowly and carefully, stuck pretty much to the main routes, and everything was fine.

When I got the the Kitaura Bridge the driving snow was apparently fighting with a mass of warmer air over the lake, for the bridge was engulfed in a huge, white cloud that almost completely obscured my vision. When I emerged on the other side, in Kashima, I found... snow at all. It was raining hard, and the road was absolutely clear (wouldn't you know it?). Business as usual. I picked up the pace, and I made it to ye olde academy with time to spare.

It was a typical exam day. In the senior high building, students were taking the general entrance test for the (wait for it...) senior high, while the junior high section was hosting the "latter stage" test, i.e. the second round in which kids who failed the first one are given another chance. (That's also how almost all our problem students get in...) Everything went quickly and smoothly, and by 4 p.m. I was already on my way home.

It was still raining hard in Kashima. I took the Jingu Bridge into Itako to find it similarly wet and snowless. When I turned and headed north, up the hill to Namegata City (former Aso), it wasn't long before I started getting snow splatters on my windshield. Within a few kilometers it was snowing hard, the road was all slushy (no ice, thank goodness), and everything was covered with white. There were banks of snow on both sides of the road. For the first time ever, I actually saw snowplows at work in my town! The lack of ice meant that driving was still relatively safe and easy. However, when I turned off onto the back road leading to my house, I found myself driving through a thick mass of snow. It wasn't really a problem till I turned into my driveway. It took me a long time to get into my parking spot because I packed the snow down on my first pass and sat there spinning on it when I tried to back up. Tenacity paid off, however, and I eventually got my BLUE (non-4WD) RAV into its appointed place.

I then got to walk in 15-cm-deep snow in my work shoes. I didn't notice, though. I was too busy surveying my surroundings.

My wife's Ford is all white...

Our local road looks like a little river in a field of white.

As you can see, I had to redig my driveway with my tires...

Looking over to where they're doing construction to widen the road. sign of life today.

The garden between our houses doesn't look quite the same...

...possibly because of the two "snowthings" my children made...

Well, it's much later now, the snow has finally eased off, and I can hear sounds of melting even though it's really cold out there. It's supposed to warm up and melt off tomorrow, but I hope it doesn't turn into a sheet of ice on the road. If it does, tomorrow morning's rehearsal is definitely off.

Okay. I've had my winter fix. Time to turn up the thermostat, okay?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Spooky Start to the New Year

2006, the Year of the Dog, is getting off to a strange start. It seems that I've always been blessed and/or cursed with a life that just won't behave like that of most people. I keep going through phases of weirdness. I'm not (necessarily) referring to my own behavior, either. I mean that periods of time pop up in which bizarre things seem to start happening all at once. This is starting to seem like such a period.

If I were to go into detail about all the odd things that are happening, this post would end up being VERY long. It's not one big thing so much as a lot of little things. There are a couple of minor issues regarding my health. There are bigger health issues involving a number of people close to me. Unexpected things are happening at work. I seem to be starting to have prophetic dreams again. My muse, normally at a peak this time of year, seems to be at a dead stop. (Even worse, not long ago I spent hours at my keyboard and guitar composing and arranging a new song only to wake up the next day to find it totally wiped from my memory.) From time to time strange things happen in the house that could qualify as an X-Files subplot or could merely be a combination of coincidence, imagination, weather, aging timbers, and a frightened little boy.

Then there are the pictures.

I gave my wife a new digital camera for Christmas. It's a pretty good one, too. It has been taking her a while to get around to using it much, but she has snapped a number of pictures, mainly of our New Year festivities. The camera has a good lens and a very sophisticated autofocus and light-adjusting system. All of the pictures she took turned out really well...except two.

Those two were the only ones that she took of me. One of them is really blurry...kind of spooky looking, actually.

This is the other one. At least it's clearly recognizable. It's me with my children at the mon (Chinese gate) of Kashima Shrine during our New Year visit. I'm holding a bag of traditional good luck charms and talismans (mostly gifts for other people). The arrow is for our own house. It's kind of a funky effect, I think, but it's still strange that all the other pictures my wife took (including some of the children taken just before or just after that one) were crystal clear.

Why am I thinking of the movie "Ring"?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Speaking of Both Music And The Spoken Word...

Well, yet another birthday has gone into the scrapbook, and, as always, my loving (but increasingly absent) wife gave me several wonderful presents. As always, she included at least one CD, in this case Enya's new album, Amarantine. It is certainly interesting.

Not that Enya's music has changed a whole lot. Sure, her musical style has gone through stages over the past two decades. Her first album, originally titled simply Enya but now known as The Celts, was a spacey dreamscape. This was followed by her breakthrough album, the very sentimental, classical Watermark. After that, she took a decidedly romantic turn with the almost too sweetly melodic Shepherd Moon. Memory of Trees seemed bolder and more passionate, with some very strong melodies that still tend to pop up as BGM for TV commercials. The next one after that, A Day Without Rain, seemed like a sort of recap of all her past themes compiled together under one roof. And then, after that, she scored a solid hit with the tunes that she did for the Lord of the Rings movies, particularly the first one. Yes, Enya's music has gone through different turns, but it has always remained unmistakably Enya. Her sound is still very much her sound, as it always has been, and it is immediately recognizable.

So, what's the take on Amarantine? Well, it's still very obviously Enya, but she seems to have taken a turn for the spacey dreamscapes again. The reason I say that is not just the music, either. The lyrics this time around represent a radical change for her. From her first album, she always sang in either English, Latin, or her native Irish. This time there is no Latin and, surprisingly, no Irish, either. Most of the songs are in English. However, one is in Japanese. There are also three that are in...


Loxian is an alien language apparently invented by Enya's longtime working partner and lyricist, Roma Ryan. The CD insert gives the lyrics of the three Loxian songs in the "native" script plus English translations. No other explanation is given except that Roma Ryan created the language for a book she recently published called "Water Shows the Hidden Heart" (also the title of one of the songs on the album). The songs are beautiful, but it is definitely a radical departure for the hitherto intransigent Enya.

So why did she do it? Well, she says that English, Irish, and Latin are "too cumbersome" and therefore not much fun to sing in. Loxian, on the other hand, was designed from the start to have a lyrical, euphonic quality to facilitate singing. I can't really say that it's strange to sing in invented, alien tongues since, in my home recordings, I have sung in Ehrkiss, Hr'Gal'ad, Fas Standard, and Soeki, all languages that I came up with for my various writings and RPG set in my so-called Impasse universe. (If you don't know what that's about, it's probably best to forget it.) However, something like that seems a bit out of place for someone like Enya, so I have to wonder whether her true motive is to compete with another recently very popular artist in the same genre, Adiemus.

For those of you not familiar with Adiemus, it is actually a project conceived and produced by composer Karl Jenkins. It has been getting a lot of airplay recently, especially on the TV as BGM for news programs and commercials. The music is basically classical with ethnic and electronic influences. However, its most readily identifiable feature is its prominent vocals, which feature singer Miriam Stockley and sometimes other female artists singing in what was called "invented language" on the first few albums and "expanded phonetics" after that. In other words, the lyrics are gibberish pieced together out of phonetic sounds taken from various world languages. The music is quite good, and it's generally quite enjoyable to listen to, but I often feel the obvious, total meaninglessness of the singing lessens the effect somewhat.

I mean, even when Enya sang in Irish, which I don't understand, it still felt like she understood, and that gave the music more impact. I don't get that sense with Adiemus at all. And now, even though Roma Ryan has clearly made an impressive and very serious effort with her "Loxian" language, it still doesn't seem like Enya really feels the words she's singing. She's just making sounds, like Adiemus does. Don't think that I'm criticizing the music at all; as I said, this is some real quality stuff, and I know I will be listening to it a lot. However, at this time of writing, I'm not thoroughly convinced of the artistic approach. Time is probably exactly what is needed for me to appreciate it fully.

If you like "new age" (I prefer to call it "eclectic") or classical music, you ought to check out Amarantine. If you're not familiar with Adiemus or with Enya's other works, I'd recommend looking into those, as well. Your take may be very different from mine.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Music of the Spoken Word

"That is how to make a soft-boiled egg. Thank you."

I-kun bows, pleased with his effort and happy to be done with it. The other two students in the room join me in a round of applause, and I heave a sigh. The last three demonstration speeches due among my grade 9 students are now finished without a hitch.

However, being the communicative sort that I tend to be, I just can't let it go at that. I have to ask the three boys, all members of both my home room and the top English grade, if they have any comments.

"It's too hot in this room to give a speech," replies I-kun in English, and the others chuckle. He's truly an interesting character. He's also absolutely right. Some clown (by the name of "Mr. O") has set the room heater on 30 degrees. I didn't notice until just now, which scares me. The English department office is a veritable sweatbox.

Of course, Mr. Ogawa (not to be confused with Mr. O) keeps doing the same thing in the music department office, where I've been spending my spare time lately, so I probably shouldn't complain.

"I was...what...?" attempts Ogawa-kun (Mr. Ogawa's son) in English, but he can't come up with the last word. Then K-kun says, "Nervous," in Japanese, and the others agree.

"It's natural and human to get nervous," I reply in English. "The important thing is, do you use your nervous energy, or do you let it dominate you?" I see squinting eyes, so I repeat it in Japanese.

K-kun and I-kun are both academic types, so they're not sure what I mean. Ogawa-kun, on the other hand, is a musician who, at age 15, already has a fair amount of stage performance time racked up (including that last performance series by the Kashima Philharmonic). He smiles knowingly as I try to paraphrase what I've just said to make it easier for the others to follow. Then I ask if they have any other questions or comments.

The three boys look at each other, and then Ogawa-kun asks for a critique on their pronunciation. The intent looks on the faces of the other two show that they are wondering the same thing. That surprises me. Ogawa-kun is definitely no academic, but the other two boys always struck me as being "test machines", i.e. good at rote memorization and acing exams but shying away from (or even mocking) anything that requires real thought or effort. I guess there's more to them than meets the eye, and that makes me very happy. Actually, their pronunciation during their speeches was quite good. Even impressive.

"However," I add, "speaking strictly and frankly, your pronunciation still sounds too Japanese. I'm talking about your vowel sounds and your intonation." I then go on to spend a good fifteen to twenty minutes demonstrating what I mean.

Vowels can be a tricky thing. Except for a few weird sounds here and there, like the various versions of "r" around the world, weird fricatives like English "th" and the "ch" in German and Hebrew (or Latin "x") and "eclipsed" percussives like the "mb" sound in some African languages, consonants are basically consonants. Sure, you could go on and on about aspiration and what-not, but, basically, you click, hiss, or spit, and you generally get the job done. Vowels? Those can be crazy simply because they are not so clearly defined. Your mouth is open in approximately this manner with your tongue in approximately this position. There is a LOT of gray area. Japanese is about as clear and simple as it gets: five vowels. Yep. Five written, five spoken. A I U E O (read in Latin manner, not Anglicized). However, they don't sound quite the same as English "ah", "ee", "oo", "ay", and "oh", particularly in the monstrous aberration that is American English simply because, as I point out, in American English the mouth is opened much wider, especially inside. It is often said in Europe that Americans talk as if they all have a hot potato in their mouth. I'd say that hits the nail right on the head. Face it; we're a nation of big-mouths, and our pronunciation reflects that. We also have a wider variety of vowels. In my elementary school days, we were taught that each of the five written vowels had a "long" and a "short" sound, meaning ten basic sounds. Once you get into dictionary pronunciation and the international phonetic alphabet, however, you learn that there are a good deal more than that. Even so, we don't come anywhere near the intimidating array of vocal sounds used in the various Chinese and Southeast Asian languages!

You'd think it only natural that a language with a simple sound system would have to rely on other means, such as tonality, to distinguish between words. Actually, the opposite is true. Japanese, with its mere five vowels, also has an extremely simple tonal system: high and low. HA-shi means chopsticks, and ha-SHI means bridge. In proper speech, there is no rising or falling intonation regardless of what is being said. Other than the simple high/low of individual syllables, the language is a virtual monotone (which plays a big role in its unique character...actually quite beautiful, if I dare say so). On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese, a very vowel-oriented language with many sounds, has four basic tonalities: mid, high, low, and falling. Thai, Laotian, Hmong, and Khmer (Cambodian) (among others) have these four plus rising. Each vowel has a specific tonality attached to it, and getting one wrong can completely screw up what you are trying to say.

So, what's the deal with English? We don't have tonalities. Instead, we have stress accents. Those can be hard for foreigners to master, and they can be even harder for us to "unlearn". Perhaps the biggest problem Americans face when trying to learn Japanese (other than the fact that the grammar is all upside down and backwards) is trying not to put stress in it. I mean, when an American asks you, "Is it HI-ro-SHI-ma or hi-RO-shi-ma," you're pretty much screwed, because the question is irrelevant. You could explain that HI and SHI are "high tone" and ro and ma "low tone", but all four syllables are exactly the same length and strength. That's something Americans naturally have a hard time figuring out, which is why, when Japanese mimic Americans, they do it by putting stress accents in their speech. That's ironic, considering the Japanese have as much trouble using stress accents in English as Americans do NOT using stress accents in Japanese.

Then there is rising and falling intonation. That's something I tend to go on and on about in my oral communication lessons. Things Americans take for granted, such as using a rising pitch with every item in a list or series except the last one, which falls (as in the sentence, "I have a Stratocaster, a Telecaster, and an SG"), are quite difficult for non-native speakers to master. I can go over it dozens of times, and the students will still try to read a list with everything falling.

"Think of it this way," I say to the three boys in the oh-so-hot room, "if the pitch falls, it usually means the statement is complete. If it rises, it means it's not. Something has to come next, whether it's the next item on the list or your answer to my question."

I'm greeted with a chorus of "ah"s. Apparently that struck home. We'll see if it lasts till next week.

I then follow with several minutes of impersonations of different dialects. That's always fun simply because it never occurs to most Japanese that English is spoken in different ways in different places (though they do know Ozzie is different from Yank. "I went to the hospital 'to die' [today]" jokes are rife here). Then I realize that I've burned up more time than I intended. After a week of work, I'm still only halfway through preparing the individual sheet music parts for the "DragonQuest IV" symphony, and I need to get busy. The boys seem surprisingly reluctant to go, which both delights and flatters me, but I hustle them and myself out into the freezing hallway. Still, I think it was time well spent.

Yet another day in the life of the Moody Minstrel...and today is Friday the 13th.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S...

Well, like the surprise snow storm, the junior high entrance exam bit is now completely over. Actually, this year's results were pretty good. The number of applicants was up. The scores were way up. Despite my rantings in that recent posting, the kids were actually more polite and well-behaved than they have tended to be in recent years. I also managed to start an argument in today's staff meeting to discuss the outcome (the only reason we had to come to work today anyway). Not bad. Not bad at all. I can almost forgive them for wiping out my whole weekend right before my birthday.

Now I and my family are sitting in our local Chinese restaurant, Yamucha, which opened only about a year or so ago. I like it when we come here, though we don't do it very often (which helps keep it special). As I wait for our food to arrive, I can't help but think about all the Chinese friends I've made, particularly over the past couple of months.

Of course, the term "Chinese" is a very simple word for something which is actually very, very complex. The nation known as "China" includes a staggeringly wide variety of different ethnic groups and cultures. Even the so-called "Chinese language" is actually a number of very different languages that share a common root grammar structure (or, perhaps more accurately, lack thereof) and symbol-based writing system. Even more amazing is the fact that none of my rapidly-expanding circle of Chinese friends actually live in China. The one I've known best and longest, though originally from China, grew up and lives in Macao. Most of the others are from Malaysia, though they can be found in various places on the planet (if you're lucky enough to catch them, that is! ;-) ). Yes, "Chinese" is a very simple-sounding word, but it represents something that is anything but simple!

Kind of like "tea".

When I was growing up in the U.S.A., tea came in two varieties, ice and hot. Then, in my college days, I discovered that there were such things as Darjeeling, Ceylon, orange pekoe, Earl Gray, English breakfast, Irish breakfast, jasmine, and whatever other varieties Twinings, Lipton, Fortnum & Mason, or Fauchon decided to put in those little bags. I then progressed into the wonderful world of herbal tea. As a student at Oregon State University with a rapidly-expanding interest in the world beyond my own backyard, I found I far preferred tea to coffee, and I drank a lot of it.

Then, in 1987, I went on a tour of Taiwan plus a two-day stopover in Japan together with my university symphonic band. That was probably the event that first opened the door to Asia to me (especially considering I'd been concentrating on German studies with a mind to studying music in Germany at the time). It was a very eventful trip, to be sure, but among the various things I encountered, there was one thing I noticed:

The tea wasn't the color I was used to. In Taiwan it tended to be a very pale yellowish or purplish. In Japan it was most definitely green. None of it tasted like any tea I'd had in the States, though I remembered having had something similar once in a Chinese restaurant in Portland in my childhood. Not surprisingly, most of the souvenirs I brought back were packs of tea (most of which, unfortunately, either disappeared or wound up going more to friends than to myself). Later, some people I met in Taiwan during the tour sent me a pack of something called "oolong tea" as a birthday present. At the time, I had no idea what to make of it, let alone how to prepare it. Finally, Snabulus and I got brave and tried boiling some up in a pot. I had no idea what I was doing, so we improvised.

In retrospect, what we got didn't taste anything like the very nice oolong tea I'm drinking right now.

Yes, tea, like the Chinese who introduced it to the world, is a very diverse and complex thing, though it is signified in English by a simple, three-letter word that rhymes with a letter of the Roman alphabet. The Chinese character for it is 茶, read "cha" in Japanese, though using only that word with a simple honorific, o-cha, means green tea in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Ocha was introduced to Japan in the 12th century together with Zen, as Zen masters from China drank it as an aid in meditation. Now it is quite widespread here, though it is less ubiquitous than it used to be. A guest or customer is traditionally supposed to be greeted with a cup of it. Japanese restaurants traditionally offer a cup of green or oolong tea before and after a meal. Coffee is now becoming more common in these roles, which is a pity since green tea is rich in antioxidants, something which many experts say helps to explain why the Japanese have the world's longest average lifespan. I have heard more than one disgruntled foreigner describe ocha as "grass tea", but it is green because it is mostly if not totally unfermented (which also explains its often rather sour, "plant-like" taste). In other words, it goes almost straight from the bush and into the pack, usually with only drying in between. As simple as that may seem, there are actually a great many varieties of ocha, and they do taste different. There is also the powdered, concentrated "green tea espresso", known as maccha (抹茶), which is used in the Tea Ceremony.

Uroncha, or oolong tea (烏龍茶, literally "black [crow] dragon tea",) is partly fermented and often lightly toasted, so the leaves appear a darker green, and the tea itself is usually a golden brown or reddish-brown. It has a very rich aroma and, though less having less of the sourness of many green teas, it is more bitter. It also has a stronger caffeine content. It is also rich in polyphenols. As I mentioned before, restaurants often serve it as an after-dinner drink. It is also popular in pubs and at drinking parties for people that are unable or unwilling to drink alcohol, such as designated drivers. Ironically, however, it is widely used as a mixer, particularly with the evil liquor known as shochu (an 80-120 proof concoction made from either rice, barley, plums, parsnips, or whatever else someone can ferment and distill). I should also point out that Chinese massage therapists, particularly Taiwanese foot masseuses, use oolong tea as a very wonderful-smelling massage oil.

The tea Westerners are most familiar with is black tea, which is called kocha (紅茶, literally "crimson tea"!) in Japan. Easier to produce than oolong tea, kocha is toasted and thoroughly fermented, so the leaves are actually a very dark color. The tea itself, however, is usually a very deep red depending on type and strength. The more extensive fermentation means it is has an even smoother taste than oolong tea (the reason Westerners prefer it) but can be even more bitter and have an even higher caffeine content. Even in this day and age, most Japanese seem not to prefer black tea. Although it is widely drunk, it is still far less popular than green or oolong tea or coffee. That sets the Japanese apart from the Chinese, who seem to prefer black teas, especially ones flavored with fruit or fragrant oils.

Herbal tea can be found in Japan, but it has yet to really catch on. For those wanting to avoid the caffeine and bitterness of ocha, uroncha, or kocha there is also mugicha, or barley tea. According to Chinese tradition, room-temperature barley tea is the best thirst quencher on a hot day. I don't know about the room-temperature bit, since I like my cold drinks cold, but mugicha definitely goes down nice after a workout. It's also very good hot. Genmaicha, or brown rice tea (quite often blended with small amounts of green tea), is also widely popular and easily found in supermarkets.

The first tea plantations in Japan were established in the 12th century by order of the Emperor (or was it the Minamoto shogunate?) in the town of Uji near Kyoto. Even today, the best Japanese tea brands still come from Uji, which is now a city but still has a lot of tea producers with all the pride, discrimination, festidiousness, and eccentricity of quality wineries (though a lot of the actual teas that they sell are grown in Shizuoka, Kagoshima, Fukui, or Hokkaido). Go to the tea section (yes, there will always be one) in any supermarket and you will find a good selection of green teas, many of which sport Uji addresses. Go to one of the many tea specialty shops, and not only will you find an even wider variety, but it's a given that the highest quality ones will all be from Uji, not to speak ill of respectable brands that come directly from Shizuoka, Kagoshima, or other tea-growing areas of the country. After all, good teas do tend to get shipped around a lot.

A top-grade Uji ocha using tea leaves grown in Kagoshima

Yes, tea may seem simple, but it's not. There's an awful lot more there than meets the eye (or the T), and it always has a lot of enjoyment to offer. Just like my Chinese friends.

I'm driving tonight, so no beer. That's okay. This oolong tea is really good, just like I know my dinner will be. Besides...I have beer waiting for me at home.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Slip Slidin' Away...

I guess it was too good to last. Whatever weather sanctuary has been protecting the greater Kashima area for the past couple of weeks finally buckled under the pressure.

The weather experts said that this would probably turn out to be the warmest winter on record. Naturally, the country immediately saw one of the worst cold snaps in history, with record snowfalls being dumped all over the country.

Everywhere except here. In the wonderful Kanto Plain we've only had days and days of beautiful, sunny, dry weather. COLD AS HELL, but dry.

Sometime during the night the Mr. Spock up in the sky above us (okay...Cmdr. Data for those of you that never got into ST:TOS) must have said, "Deflector shields are gone, captain," because I got up to go to work this morning, opened the curtains, and was greeted with a world of white. There wasn't that much snow; maybe a couple of centimeters (0.7874 inches) at best. However, since it was buckets-frozen-solid cold outside, the little bit of melt caused by the morning sun quickly turned into a nice, shiny, slick pavement of ice on the street.

No, driving on it wasn't fun.

Fortunately, once I creeped my way out to the main road, the worst was over. Traffic had long since cleared the lanes of ice. However, cars were still spinning in off the side streets, and traffic was slowed to a standstill by frequent accidents. Once I got into Kashima, pulled off the main route, and wound my way around the hills leading to the academy, I found snow and ice again. Going up one steep incline, my traction broke free, and my wheels were spinning like crazy (and my car threatening to rotate) as I fortunately somehow managed to keep moving uphill and over the top. Even though I'd left nice and early, I wound up rolling in to the school more than half an hour late.

It was a good thing that entrance exams were yesterday (as yesterday's post described...if I ever get around to writing it...). Being tardy today wasn't such a disaster. A lot of other teachers didn't show up at all. Today was spent marking test papers. As we did so, we could see that it was snowing again outside. Hard. The sky overhead was black, and the air all around was like a thick fog of snowflakes. As it turned out, my group finished really quickly, so I just took care of a few odds and ends in the music office. Then I decided to make the trip home early so I wouldn't have to face the dangers in the dark.

It was no longer snowing when I left. In fact, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. There was still snow and ice in the campus, especially in the teachers' parking lot. Once I crawled my way out of there, however, I found that the rest of the world had long since thawed out. The sun was blazing, and the streets of Kashima were bone dry. Not a speck of white to be seen anywhere. It was normal driving all the way home.

Now I'm sorry I didn't bring a camera with me this morning instead of popping off in a panicked huff. We actually had winter snow this year. It didn't last even half a day, but it was a harrowing half a day! I guess Old Man Winter paid his courtesy call.


Friday, January 06, 2006

The Measure of Excellence...or Relevance

It's that time of year again. Time for the entrance exam for the junior high section of ye olde academy. This, more than anything else, indicates that winter vacation is now just a memory. It also gives us a bit of a foretaste of what we'll be seeing in the 7th grade classrooms come April.

The routine is still very much the routine. Every year all kinds of meetings and planning sessions are held to decide on the format and content of the exams as well as how the whole thing is to be carried out. Every year it winds up being more or less the same. All that time, thought, research, and effort spent every year to follow the same routine. Welcome to Japan.

When the chime rings telling the proctors it's time to hand out the test papers, I notice that it is a minute slow (and I keep my watch set to school time). The test-day chimes are always a bit off the mark. I guess that's why they remove all the clocks from the classrooms on exam day. Same old, same old.

Things aren't exactly the same every time, though. It is an event, and not without event. We can also see very clearly how Japanese children have changed over the years.

The look and atmosphere is basically the same. The kids are nervous as heck, and most of them are playing it safe in terms of look and behavior, aiming to please. As always, almost every bag has an "exam-passing" good luck charm tied to it, most from nearby Kashima Shrine. Many kids are wearing new-looking clothes, if not freshly-cleaned school uniforms, and sporting new (conservative) haircuts. It's definitely the exam-day look.

There are differences, however. For one thing, the kids are big. The 6th graders of today average about the same size as 8th graders of a decade ago. It used to be said that the easiest way to tell Korean and Japanese children apart from each other was that the Koreans tended to be taller and stronger in build, probably since meat has been an important part of the Korean diet for a long time. Not anymore. Now Japanese kids are eating a much more westernized (i.e. lots of oil & beef) diet, and they're monstrous compared with their counterparts in the early '90s.

Another difference from their forebears seems to be in terms of manners and willingness to listen to others, particularly those in authority. During our exams, we have a strict rule that, if someone drops something on the floor, he is to call for a teacher to pick it up instead of getting it himself. This is to prevent Mr. Bean-style cheating. Even as recent as five years ago, the examinees were very obedient; the test proctors tended to be kept busy fetching erasers, mechanical pencils, applicant I.D. cards, test papers, lost wits, etc.. This time, during my first test proctor session, six students drop items on the floor, but only one of them asks for assistance. The others either just ignor their instructions and get whatever they've dropped themselves anyway (with me sadly not allowed to shred their test papers in their faces) or just ignore the lost item till the test is over.

That's pretty insolent, particularly when they're trying to convince us to admit them into our school. But such behavior isn't surprising these days.

This is actually a phenomenon we've seen a lot in our students, particularly during the last four years. Friendship circles, though very temporary and ever-changing, seem to be closer than ever, but kids belonging to a circle tend to be very insular within it. It's just like the cell phone and internet chat rooms that occupy so much of their time (and often include the same members, anyway); they are totally devoted to and wrapped up in what is going on within their own group, but the rest of the world only exists when they have a particular need for it. That can make things doubly hard for the teachers, since we are obviously by our very nature forbidden from being part of the circle (unless one is young, handsome, and single, but that can lead to other complications...). That means that, for the most part, we're simply not part of the kids' world. Sure, there has always been a gap between teachers and students. That gap, if not properly managed, can lead to feelings of distrust if not resentment. However, now the gap seems not so much insurmountable as impenetrable. It's one thing when a kid is resistant or rebellious. It's quite another when he's perfectly good-natured and even friendly but simply does not hear a single word he's told. How does one try to reach a student who lives on the wrong side of a one-way mirror?

There's quite a crowd this year. Amazing. We are constantly being reminded of the declining birthrate and subsequent, rapid drop in the number of children. We hear enough about it to be nauseated by it. However, this year the number of applicants is up, and the kids seem to be doing alright at these difficult exam problems. They have to; at least half of them will be turned away. It's pretty much a given that most if not all these kids attend cram school, since it's doubtful an ordinary elementary school education would allow them to be competitive. Unfortunately, modern cram schools actually seem to be contributing to the problem.

Last year I actually visited a modern chain cram school and observed some "lessons". I say "modern" because the old-style, teacher-centered form of cram school is rapidly going the way of the floppy disk. All the new ones use a very individual, "learn at your own pace" approach. Basically, each student picks his own drill book from the rack, does the problems on his own as he likes, and then has the teacher (or a computer) check them. The system looks ideal on paper; theoretically, each student should be working according to his individual ability and receiving education according to his individual need. (Hey, where have I heard that before?) In practice, however, as I have observed, the same problem exists that has plagued every attempt to establish a Marxist system in history (yep, thats it). If everyone gets the same reward whether he works or not, there's really no reason to work. What I saw in that juku was anarchy. Kids aged eleven and twelve were running around the room screaming and throwing things, pausing only occasionally to do a couple of problems in their drill books. Meanwhile, a couple of serious students sat and concentrated on their own drills totally oblivious to the world around them. And what was the teacher doing? She was sitting at her desk patiently waiting for the kids to bring their books for her to check. And naturally, when the noisy kids did come, they were very cavalier about it.

"Oy, sensei," yelled out one boy in strong imperative form, banging his book on the desk, "mark it!"

"Oh, you're doing pretty good today," said the teacher encouragingly as she scribbled in the book with her red pen. "Keep it up!"

The kid kept it up, alright. Immediately forgetting the teacher's existence, he snatched up his book and then started dancing around for a while before attacking one of his classmates.

That boy was studying in hopes of entering my school. For all I know, he might be one of the wide-eyed, quivering applicants now trying to remember difficult Chinese characters. The trouble is, we're seeing a lot of kids bringing that sort of attitude into our classrooms, i.e. fully expecting to be left alone and allowed to do what they want how they want when they want and listening to the teacher only when they feel there is a personal need for it. The end result is not just a tendency for classrooms to break down. A lot of stupid mistakes are made for no reason or, even worse, repeated time and time again simply because more and more kids are so incapable of processing information from outside their enclosed universes that the fact of their having made a mistake simply doesn't register. Even if it does, they've become too accustomed to following a cram school-inspired routine to change it even if they know there's a problem. Never mind thinking. We must repeat!

We must repeat! (We are DE-VO!)

Easy, moody guy, easy...we won't know till April, will we? Actually, our current junior high kids aren't as bad as the two disaster classes that are now in grades 10 and 11...

Speaking of DEVO, maybe I'll go pop on a CD after this exam business is over and unwind. "I've uncontrollable urge..."