Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Changing Face of Kindness?

Last night, while having dinner, my family was watching one of those widely-popular "freaky but true stories" TV programs. As with the majority of the Japanese population, we do tend to see those a lot. Anyway, the program went through the expected fare of shocking videos, crimes, and unsolved mystery stories from around the world. Then, as it neared its end, it proceeded to the obligatory "warm-fuzzy" closing segment. The story, as it turned out, was what is currently the "heartwarming tale du jour" in Korea (and has apparently already inspired at least one fictionalized movie version). I tried to provide a link to an online source somewhere, but I didn't have much luck finding one (which makes me wonder), but anyway, this is how the story goes (in a bit of a nutshell):

Sometime in the late '70s a man in Pusan, South Korea, found a woman lying on the street unconscious. There was no I.D. of any kind on her (or so he claimed), so he took her to the hospital himself. She didn't appear to be injured, but when she awoke she had no memory of who she was or how she'd gotten there. The hospital was unable to help her recover her memories, so when she was released (read "more or less thrown out") the man who had found her took her to a family he knew in the city. They provided her with lodging and a job so she was at least able to live comfortably. Her case was taken to the local police, but they basically shrugged the whole thing off and offered no help at all. There was nothing for the woman to do but continue as she was for the time being.

The woman's memory never returned, and she remained with the family. Meanwhile, the man who had found her kept visiting her with increasing frequency and intimacy. Finally he told her he had to return to his hometown and invited her to come with him. She had misgivings, mindful that she probably had a family there in Pusan, but he was persistent. He promised to take care of her until her memory recovered. She agreed, and they went to his old homestead in the country together.

They wound up living more or less in a common law marriage for more than twenty years, during which time she gave birth to a son. She recalled that she'd had children before, but her memory of her former life was still lost to her. Finally, however, they hit the snag to end all snags. Their son had reached the age of compulsory military service, but the government required verification of his mother's family background. Since she still had no idea who she was, their case was taken to the police again. This time, with the assistance of computers and the internet, they were able to track down her missing past.

Not only did it turn out that she was married, but her real husband had spent the previous twenty plus years searching desperately for her, refusing to give up hope, while taking care of their three children alone. His life had been more or less wrecked. Needless to say, when word got to him that his long-lost wife had been found, he insisted on meeting her immediately. She and her "second husband" were reluctant, naturally, but they went through with it.

When the real husband and three children first saw her for the first time in more than twenty years they were ecstatic. She, on the other hand, was frightened. All she said was, "I'm sorry! I don't remember any of you!" Then she ran into her "second husband's" arms. Her real husband, seeing that she was obviously happy in her new life, decided then and there to renounce all claim to her. With tears in his eyes...and his son and two daughters freaking out around him...he returned to Pusan.

This apparently happened very recently, and all of Korea is apparently awash in tears over this true-life tale. Everyone is crowing about how kind and loving both the real husband and the second man were. The empty-headed idiot celebrity panel on the Japanese TV program blathered on and on and on expressing similar sentiments. It was all so beautiful, so moving, so heart-warming, so romantic...

It was all I could do to keep from smashing that damned TV. I was positively seething, and I remained so upset afterward that I couldn't sleep last night. I realized long ago that I tend not to think the same way as most people, but I fail to see how that story is "beautiful", "moving", or "heart-warming" in the least. "Romantic"? Don't make me puke!

When I was in elementary school (in the late '70s, which was when the woman was found unconscious...hmmm...) I once had a dream that I still remember clearly. I dreamed that my mother suddenly disappeared. We found her later, but she was engaged to marry another man and claimed not to know us at all. When we begged her to come back, she just said dismissively, "I don't know you. You're not part of my life. Go away." I woke up in tears. I still remember how painful that dream was, and I'm sure that's coloring my opinion here. I feel very sorry for the woman's real husband and the three children. As for that second man...well...let's just say that neither "kind" nor "loving" has any hope of entering the picture.

If that man had had any ounce of common sense, he would have realized there had to be people and places the woman recognized there in Pusan. Therefore, to recover her memory, it only stood to reason that she should have stayed in Pusan. If he really did care for her and want to help her, he should have tried to help her find her real life there in Pusan, not haul her off to his little country home where he would be the only thing she had any chance of recognizing! Of course her memory never recovered! He made damned sure it didn't!

Bottom line: the man never really thought about what was best for the woman at all. His only concern was for what "felt good". He helped her because it "felt good". He befriended her because it "felt good". He became intimate with her because it "felt good". Then he talked her into becoming his happy homemaker in the country because it "felt good". In the process, he more or less hijacked her life and wrecked the lives of her husband and three children all because it "felt good" to him at the time...and in the end it was this self-centered son of a bitch that ended up winning. Somebody help me here: just what the hell is it that I'm supposed to find "beautiful", "moving", or "heart-warming" about this? On the contrary; this is about as cynical as it gets! This is the epitome of the sucky side of human nature! "Romantic"? Do you really want to eat this crockery?!?

It used to be said that real love sometimes hurts. I still believe that for some reason even though it's clearly passe. Nowadays it seems to be the norm to think that everything is okay as long as it feels good. That's what the media says. That's what so many parents say. That's what so many of my educator colleagues say. Love and kindness means everyone feels good.

"Umm...that kid just hides in the corner and never does anything. He's not going to get anywhere that way. Maybe what he needs is a little push..."
"Umm...letting him stay a helpless baby all his life is your idea of love?"
" this your idea of education?"
"Umm...meaning indulging them and not helping them grow?"
"Umm...better get a bucket..."

Maybe I need to go back to school to learn what kindness really means. I'm getting seriously confused here...and in need of beer, obviously...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Censorship pt. II

Saba first appeared in my personal blog world early last February, when she suddenly planted a comment in the middle of yet another debate/rant session I was having with Goemagog on the Pave's Peculiar Pabulum site. It wasn't the most profound comment in the world, to be sure, but it struck me as being very much the right thing to say at the right time. At any rate, I was intrigued by this woman and curious to find out what she was about, so I visited her own blog.

When it appeared in my browser it was like a two-by-four across the face. Her site, entitled "Bahrain and Beyond", was anything but subtle. A young woman with a taste for Metallica and sassy deadpan, she was also a very vociferous champion of the Palestinian cause, and for a good reason. Her family hails from the West Bank city of Ramallah, once known as "the Prague of the Middle East" for its supersized share of poets, thinkers, and writers. Not surprisingly, Saba was all of the above. She was scarcely older than my senior students at ye olde academy, but she was clearly gifted, knowledgeable, well-traveled, and mature beyond her years. Some of the views she expressed on her site were rather extreme, but if anyone confronted her (as they often did) they quickly found they were dealing with no mere, empty-headed ranter. Her ability to back herself up by delivering on demand a massive barrage of documented information was impressive. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she attracted lots of attention.

Already an international controversy before the age of 20, Saba had the ability to grab people's attention and hold it with both hands. That also gave her the ironic ability to bring people together. A lot of surfers and bloggers visited her site, and many of them became regular visitors, myself included. In fact, several of the people in my current blog "family" I met either directly or indirectly thanks to "Bahrain and Beyond".

Of course, if one champions an extreme cause, one can expect extreme opposition, and Saba got it. The Jewish/Israeli reaction was swift, strong, and at times brutal. Even I was not immune; no sooner did I post an article praising "Bahrain and Beyond" on the Snabulus website than Snabulus , this blog, and a few others linked to it started getting hammered by anti-Palestinian propaganda spam. However, ironically, once again Saba's uncanny ability to bring people together came into play. In the process of the debate I came to be acquainted with some very interesting Jewish/Israeli bloggers including Shlemazl, Oleh, and especially Greg, who I now count among my blog friends.

Perhaps most ironic of all was the deep friendship that wound up sprouting between Saba and Greg. A visit to Russian-born, Chicago-raised, Tel Aviv-based Greg's site, "Hear O Israel", will show you that he is a Zionist in no uncertain terms. However, just like Dr. Epstein, my undisputed favorite of all the teachers I had in college, he is a Zionist of sense, reason, intelligence, and sensitivity and very much worthy of respect. His beliefs and Saba's seemed almost diametrically opposed, and yet they both shared support for the "two-state solution" of Israel/Palestine. They also realized that they were both equally sick to death of the whole Israel/Palestine conflict thing and wanted to distance themselves from it.

Together with Oleh, they created a joint blog appropriately called "Hope". It was a place where they could put aside all the ethnic/political/religious differences and just talk about life...and poetry. It was really a wonderful and inspiring project, and several of us more or less made ourselves at home there so we could try to be a part of this online oasis of humanity in a world gripped by an ice age of intolerance. Yes, it was a very good thing, and, unfortunately, good things seldom last long.

I often wondered why neither Saba nor Greg ever really tried to conceal their respective identities. In fact, it was almost like they went out of their way to make themselves accessible. That turned out to be a very dangerous gamble. In Greg's case, all he got was a lot of hate mail from extremists in the Israeli camp. As for Saba, her eagerly-anticipated dream summer holidays back home in Bahrain, Jordan, and the West Bank ended with a threat on her that she had reason to take very seriously. The aggressor had only one demand: cease all blog-related activities. Unwilling to put herself or her family in unnecessary danger, she submitted to his demands. "Bahrain and Beyond" suddenly turned into a blank template before any of us knew what was going on. Then, like a symbol of everything that is wrong with this age, "Hope" vanished.

The freedom to be and say what we want to in the wonderful world of blogland is something we all tend to take for granted, but we shouldn't. What we have here is a remarkable privilege, and there are many who would happily take it from us if they could. We should cherish this and defend it. Most of all, we should do our best to make it what we want it to be while respecting others' right to do the same. Who knows? Even your worst enemy might wind up turning out to be one of your best friends.

Best wishes to you, Greg, and good luck. Saba, all my best, and we will all miss you.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

This Mozartal Coil, in Iambic Pentaheptapentameter

Perhaps inspired by the fact that the Kashima Philharmonic (fanfare...cue the fanf...hey, where'd all the brass go??!? ) is going to be performing Mozart's piano concerto kv. 23 in our December concert (with me on 1st clarinet), I popped on my DVD of Amadeus and watched it today. It had been a while since I'd seen that flick, and I'd forgotten how much I like it. I guess it's just the musician in me, but that movie always moves me very deeply.

(Yes, I DO actually like some movies that aren't sci-fi or fantasy!)

Speaking of dying young, by sheer coincidence (or psychic programming, one of the two), two of my friends in (and out of) Blogland have recently posted topics dealing with that very subject. Tooners over in Bahrain, in her post entitled "What about you?", asks what you would do if you knew you were about to die. How would you spend your final days? That's definitely something to think about. Would you travel? Would you try to do something that you'd always wanted to but had never gotten around to it? Would you do something totally nuts just for the heck of it? Would you just shrug your shoulders and follow your usual routine? Or would you throw all your energy into one, last, big, final project? My school pal (and occasional literary critic) Kami takes it through a whole different window. She asks what her close acquaintances would do for her if they knew she'd be dying soon. That is a very bizarre thing to ask, but yet at the same time it makes perfect sense. If I came back to Oregon for a visit, for example, and all my friends there knew I was about to kick the bucket, what would they do for me? Would they awkwardly try to avoid the topic altogether? Would they disappear into the woodwork? Or would they indulge me with something...well...indulgent? It's not an easy question to answer, and I hope nobody asks least not if they expect a serious answer.

Mortality can be such a touchy thing.

On a totally different note (A#?), Olivia asked me to explain just what a tanka poem is. I realize I should have before, so I'll do that now. (Sorry, Mr. Intrepid Explorer, it's not a maker of toy trucks.)

Simply put, tanka is like a longer version of haiku. Haiku traditionally have seventeen syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern. Tanka, on the other hand, usually have a total of thirty-one syllables. The classical form is 5-7-5-7-7, but there is a lot more flexibility than with haiku. As long as the total syllable count is thirty-one (or close to it), almost any kind of structure is permissible. Most of the tanka I have written thus far actually follow a 7-9-9-6 pattern or close to it, and I've had Japanese language/literature teachers here tell me they're just fine.

(Incidentally, modern haiku is also a lot more flexible with regard to syllable count, as with the excellent examples Wendy recently provided. However, there are still a lot of mixed feelings about that. A lot of people tend to be purists with regard to haiku, but I've never heard any such complaints regarding tanka.)

In order to capture the traditional style of either haiku or tanka, it is necessary to include a "season word", i.e. a reference to an event, flower, animal, or weather phenomenon that is characteristic of the season or month in question. It doesn't really matter whether or not the "season word" has any direct connection with the topic of the poem, but it can be considered "more clever" if some kind of metephorical link can be established.

I hope that makes it a bit clearer, and I look forward to your contributions!

Now...does anybody know any Salieri tunes?

Friday, September 22, 2006


We had one of those dratted staff meetings at ye olde academy today.

We have those things once a month on average unless something actually happens, in which case we have more. On each such occasion we can look forward to 2+ hours of long, rambling presentations, usually simply read (in a droning monotone) from the mound of papers that always welcome each of us as we ooze into the meeting room. And if we're really lucky one or more of the frustrated activists on the staff will take exception to something and launch into a protracted (and totally meaningless) debate that just goes on and on and on...

Most of the time it's all I can do to keep my eyes open. Actually, I tend to fail more often than not. The sight of me snoozing away during meetings has become a familiar one at ye olde academy, and there has been many a good-natured joke about it.

Tonight I actually managed to stay awake, though. I did it by making use of the meeting time to write a couple of Japanese tanka poems. That kept my brain occupied while the droning dialogue flowed around me like a warm breeze. At least it did until something came up that actually grabbed my attention. It was the second-to-the-last item of the meeting, and it was a cause for concern.

One of the vice principals, after inviting us to dig through the stack for the appropriate paper yet again, began by saying, "It has come to our attention that someone connected with this school has used the name of this school and posted pictures of it on a blog site..."

I think every hair on my body raised a nanometer.

The vice principal went on, saying, "With regard to the recent privacy laws, we want to make it clear that our policy is as follows:
a. No pictures of students are to be displayed.
b. No names of students are to be mentioned.
c. The name of our school is not to be used in any manner which is non-beneficial."

"The recent privacy laws", indeed. Protection of personal data has been one of the witchhunts du jour (read "overblown crusade that winds up causing more trouble than it solves") for the past few years. The new privacy laws are draconian to the point of absurdity. They have already prevented hospitals from sharing urgently-needed medical information during emergencies and disallowed people from tracking down estranged marriage partners that abducted their kids and disappeared in violation of custody rulings. It's getting to the point where the government is so paranoid about protecting society's personal data that society is becoming unable to function properly.

And now this.

One of the other teachers asked if anyone had actually complained about such a blog. The vice principal replied that no one had. The administration had simply been "made aware" of the existence of such a blog and wanted to establish official policy.

Unfortunately, the Japanese language tends to be vague by nature. The near-total lack of plural forms means there is no way of knowing whether the vice principal was talking about a specific blog or all such blogs collectively. Therefore, I don't know if the "warning" (as he called it) was directed at me or not. In any case, another teacher, who coaches one of the sports teams, immediately stood and made an impassioned defense of the blog created and maintained by the members of his team. He was neither reprimanded nor ordered to take down the blog, but the vice principal warned him that such a website was in violation of the law and urged to make it compliant (i.e. render it largely meaningless).

I have to wonder, though: if it's evil to post pictures showing students on websites, why is it okay for the school to put up all those recruitment posters that are nothing but pictures of students...especially since they always include a shot of a dance competition showing plenty of leg? Yes, I know; intent plays a large part in the argument...but the vice principal never said anything about intent. He just said no pictures, no names, and no taking the name of the school in vain.

As for me, I understand what he's saying completely, and I have every intent of not complying. If a student has a problem with any of the pics I've posted, they can bring their grievances to me directly.

Anyway, here's the two tanka (31-syllable) poems that I wrote during the meeting. It took a while to find the right words and get the syllable count right. (I also dozed off a time or two mid-verse, but anyway...)


tsuuka shita taifuu - A typhoon has passed on,
sonogo safaia sora - Afterward a sapphire sky;
tooi tokoro ni - In a faraway place,
hito nakigoe - The sound of a person crying.


aki no kaze fuite - Autumn's wind blows,
ki ni ochite kuru ha - Leaves falling from the trees,
tochi e no okurimono - A gift to the ground;
kusa ga denai - The grass won't grow.

Tomorrow is the Autumnal Equinox, an important day in many cultures. May you spend it well.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Sometimes a simple change of position is the answer to all life's problems, as Tora clearly demonstrates.

At other times it's best just to cover your eyes and forget all about reality for a while.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Turning of the Seasons

Even after a decade and a half here it never ceases to amaze me how suddenly the weather changes here. It's like someone says, "Oh, hey, it's September," and then flips a switch somewhere. Presto! The temperature drops a bit, the humidity drops a lot, the sunlight seems to take on a different character, and then all these typhoons keep popping up all around these islands.

It's not just the weather that changes, either. It seems like the world itself always goes through some serious shifts in the ninth month of the solar calendar. about a haiku or two? First one about a worrying situation involving one or more blog friends:

寒くなる samuku naru It grows cold,
蝉が歌わず semi ga utawazu The cicada doesn't sing,
希望なし kibou nashi There's no hope.

And another one about a surprising situation at work:

蟋蟀の koorogi no The cricket's
声はうるさい koe wa urusai Voice is annoying,
秋の要 aki no you An essential part of Autumn.

Okay, this one is rather obvious:

倒れた木 taoreta ki Fallen trees...
風か悪い根 kaze ka warui ne Wind or bad roots?
構わない kamawanai It doesn't matter.

Or how about this one?

台風は taifuu wa The typhoon...
北から急に kita kara kyuu ni Suddenly from the North,
来るなのか kuru na no ka Will it really come?

Actually, I think people in the U.S. are more worried about a possible typhoon from the East, but whatever. It all depends on where you are.

Speaking of which, there's a typhoon brushing up against the southern part of the country right now, kicking up some rain here on the Kanto Plain. There's another squall raging outside now, so I'd probably better wrap up just in case either it gets electrical or this roof starts to leak again.


Friday, September 15, 2006

What Begets What??!?

When I first arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun back in 1990 corporal punishment in schools had only just been officially banned and was still very much a part of the local mindset. The Ministry of Education (now the Ministry of Technology and Education) made a sort of witch-hunt of the whole affair and was quick to make a very visible example of any teacher they caught using violence against students. However, it was still considered a matter of course by most parents that schools would quite literally whip their kids into shape. As far as the teachers themselves were concerned it was standard procedure, and I witnessed some pretty horrifying acts of "discipline" during the three years I spent as an Assistant Language Teacher assigned to the public senior high schools of the greater Kashima area.

Not that I remained silent about it.

Actually, in a program like JET, which recruits mainly hot-headed, ambitious young people with delusions of grandeur right out of college, it's only inevitable that there is more than a dragon's share of (mostly liberal) activists on the roster. The fight against corporal punishment was definitely the crusade du jour, and the cliche "Violence begets violence" got tossed around at every turn. I was nowhere near as frothy-mouthed about it as many of those would-be hero types, but I made my views on the subject very clear. In fact, I protested rather vociferously, telling my Japanese coworkers that I refused to do my job if a teacher was brutalizing a student in the faculty office or, as was often the case, in an adjoining closet. I don't know how much effect I had personally, but the acts of violent discipline definitely seemed to fade to almost zero while I was present.

Eventually I left the JET Program(me) and the local public high schools and moved on, eventually settling here at ye olde academy. Meanwhile, the fight against corporal punishment turned from a political publicity stunt to a witch-hunt at the grassroots level. By the end of the 90s most of the municipal school boards didn't even allow teachers to scold students, let alone use any kind of physical punishment. Meanwhile, here at ye olde academy, a teacher who was known to pound students on the head if they either talked or slept during his class was repeatedly suspended and finally banned from the classroom till he resigned. Another teacher, who slapped a student that insulted him, was verbally roasted during a staff meeting as if he were guilty of rape or something.

Then there was "hero-at-large" Mr. O, who tore into me with a vicious barrage of heated insults and attacks on my professional competence because I wanted to hold a staff conference regarding a group of troublesome students. In his mind, the fact that I even thought those students should be considered for disciplinary action was proof of my lack of ability. His final words were, "As teachers, above all, our job is to LOVE the students, LOVE the students, LOVE the students!"

(Funny...he never even tried to deal with the problem students, and they continued to be a problem till the end. So much for his "superior, professional ability".)

Perhaps I should also mention my wife, who has just been railroaded into quitting her position as coach of her school's tennis team by a rabid mob of parents who are also calling for her removal as a teacher altogether. Her crime? She said the following statement to the newly-elected punk captain of her team: "If you can't listen to me or do your job, you might as well quit." Ooh, that's harsh. The parents are calling it "verbal corporal punishment", and a couple of them are even threatening legal action.

Yes, education in Japan has become a far kinder, gentler affair than what it used to be. Depending on which school or municipality you are in, it is also full of all kinds of nauseating cliches, such as "They are not children, they are small adults," or "Respect them, and they will respect you," or "LOVE the students, LOVE the students, LOVE the students!"

I guess I already said that last one. Sorry.

Anyway, since the whole point of the fight against corporal punishment was "violence begets violence", you'd think that in this wonderful, happy, violence-free, love-filled educational environment kids are growing up to be nice, sweet, non-violent little angels that totally respect their teachers, right?

You'd think it, and you'd be WRONG.

In fact, today's news reported that school violence has been on the rise steadily over the past decade, with the largest increase happening during the past four or five years. The biggest problem is that kids nowadays are much more childish than they used to be, a product of indulgence, which means they are much less able to control their emotions. They are also well aware that their teachers' authority is totally toothless, so they have little or no respect for authority in general. Violent attacks on both teachers and fellow students are happening at a rate almost double what it was back in 1990.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the academic performance of Japanese students has also taken a very disturbing nose-dive.

Well, to all you cliche-spewing idealists, I'd say take a good, hard look at reality. The verdict is in; "violence begets violence" doesn't stand up to empirical evaluation. Maybe it's time to experiment with going back to the alternative and put a little fear back in the kids. Bring back the scolding. Bring back the switch sticks. Maybe it's time to see some little punks standing outside holding buckets of water for an hour again.

Actually, maybe it's time to see some parents doing that...and some administrators...and some politicians...and some teachers...and some random people off the street...and...

*ahem* Anyway, back to life...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Do Re Mi Fa So La Tea...

What a week this has been. We saw yet another Space Shuttle launch delayed once due to the weather and again due to technical problems. We saw world-famous adventurer, animal expert, and energetically Oz-speaking icon of Australia, Steve Irwin, after tempting fate so many times with aggressive, wild animals, finally brought down by the poisonous barb of a panicking stingray. We saw the first male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan born in over 40 years arrive via C-section compliments of Princess Kiko, whose husband is NOT the crown prince. We heard the announcement that Tony Blair plans to resign before the year is out.

And here at ye olde academy, the yearly Foundation Festival (soryosai - 創陵祭) has begun.

I figured it would be a wild one this year. After all, the Festival is always the project of the school's 11th grade class, and this year's 11th graders are a uniquely wild bunch. (This is, after all, the same class that, as 9th graders, drove me to throw a desk.) This year's theme, "Upbeat", also led me to suspect we were in for a crazy ride. I was right. The lengths they went to this year are nothing short of extraordinary. They even went so far as to put up gigantic signs all around the school so that no one driving by had any chance of missing it.

And just in case they did, there was also an advertising balloon!


Needless to say, the opening ceremony was a spectacle to behold. They performed a skit that was a spoof of the Power Rangers...and the enemy was the demon that was making the students of their class misbehave! (I guess they really do understand themselves well...) It was full of cliche Japanese humor; there was lots of confusion, bellowing, smacking people over the head, cross-dressing, and gay jokes. In the end, our principal strode onto the stage dressed as "Gold Ranger" (wearing what looked like a shiny, gold forest ranger outfit) and shot down the demon with a laser rifle. (Students dressed as kabuki "invisible" stage hands carried the "laser blast" across the stage. It was pretty funny.) They then declared the Festival open.

A familiar sight: a student art exhibit in the lobby and a "stained glass" image in the lobby windows are an annual thing.

I only wish the individual classrooms of the other grades and the clubs were even half as inventive with their own activities. Unfortunately (or maybe even fortunately), I wasn't really able to check them out. That's because I was in charge of La Bohême once again.

La Bohême is one of the annual festival projects of our music club. It is basically a tea room with live music. In other words, you can sit down in an air conditioned room and enjoy a cold drink and some bakery treats while being serenaded by various solos and ensembles. The project is planned and executed almost exclusively by the 10th grade members, and as such it serves as a valuable dress rehearsal for the following year, when they will be in charge of the music club itself. La Bohême has been a regular event for the past twelve years, and I have been in charge of it for the past five. It is always an adventure, and I'm never really sure what to expect once the wheels start rolling.

In fact, this year I wasn't sure of anything. The leaders of this year's project seemed unusually aloof and evasive, telling me nothing and giving only evasive answers to my questions. Considering this year's 10th graders are actually one of the better groups of kids we've had in a long time, I thought that very strange. Anyway, the evasiveness went on clear up until four days before the event was due to start. Even then the chief started answering my questions only when I pressed her. It was hard to guage her reactions; either she was worried about my possible interference or she was just plain shy. At any rate, their plan seemed like a good one, if a bit vague, so I only offered a couple of points of advice and let them do their work.

I remember the first La Bohême I ever saw at ye olde academy, which was back in 1995. It was my first year at the school, but only as a part-time instructor, and I wasn't directly involved with the music club yet. For the most part it was just a dark and sauna-bath hot (since there was no air conditioning yet) room; what little decor there was seemed like a half-hearted joke. The waitresses serving the (warm) drinks and snacks seemed as disheartened as they were lost. The performance schedule was so badly planned that there were long intervals of nothing...and at one point the emcee actually asked if anyone in the audience was willing to get up and play something! I remember almost wishing either I or someone else had, because the few student performances I saw were pretty bad (as in "Quick, let's play time to practice!"). I remember leaving the room shaking my head and regretting the ticket I'd forked over to get in.

The year after that I was a full-time instructor at Seishin and also assistant director of bands. Mr. Ogawa was still in charge of La Bohême, but he asked me to assist. Things weren't much better than they'd been the year before; both the planning and the execution were half-hearted and confused. Lots of mistakes were made. The room was still too dark and too hot. The performance schedule was still full of gaping holes (which I was asked to fill on the spot on several the point where they were joking about renaming it La [Moody] ). However, two good things did happen. Our kids got the top award for their promotion poster, and the quality of the student performances showed some definite improvement. That apparently helped get the wheels turning, because, as with everything else in our music club, once the tradition became established it started to grow and develop.

In fact, it grew and developed a lot.

I don't think the corridor outside the AV lecture hall has ever been this colorful, let alone musical!

As I watched this year's La Bohême take shape, I couldn't help thinking back to those good (well, maybe not...) old days and being amazed at just how different things have become. The fact that the room now has air conditioning and we have the luxury of portable stage lights and good sound equipment is only part of the story. The students turned that grim-looking lecture hall into a high-class night club with tastefully eye-catching decor on the outside (complete with a pub sign!), an impressive stage backdrop on the inside, and a smartly-organized bar. The kids also went to great lengths both to fill the performance schedule and to organize it the point of bringing a couple of special guest appearances. Judging from the rehearsals I heard, the overall quality of the performances was also a far cry from the thin, out-of-tune attempts of a decade ago. Things were looking pretty impressive.

However, there were also a lot of problems. This year's 10th graders are very good kids, but their thinking has tended to be rather more naive than average. There has also been a noted lack of initiative, something which tends to be scant among Japanese kids in any case. True leadership was in short supply, which meant that teamwork tended to fade in and out as direction was lost and reasserted. Needless to say, there were also some pretty severe communication problems. The original theme, which was London, somehow wound up becoming a sort of European-flavor Old West saloon simply because the people making the decor either weren't told the plan or simply didn't pay any attention to it. They also managed to thoroughly piss off the teachers that were assisting with our light and sound systems simply because the right hand didn't know what the left was doing. That's when I finally decided to step in and start keeping direct tabs on what was going on, though I still kept my kid gloves on. After all, for me to assume personal control of the project and just start ordering the kids about would have defeated the whole point of the issue. Instead, I asked the student leaders to give me the orders as if I were a senior student rather than a teacher. I then helped make sure those orders were understood and carried out by everyone else. I also offered advice when it was needed. In the end, I helped things run a bit more smoothly, but it still remained a student project.

Actually, things fell into place nicely. As I said, the room and surrounding hall turned out beautifully...just in the nick of time. After that the kids somehow made it all work over both days of the Festival. There were a few hiccups here and there, but no major problems of any kind. Sporting my official La Bohême necktie (this year's uniform...and a very nice touch), I got to play bouncer and sit in the back of the room, which meant I got to see most of the performances on both days. I have to say I was quite impressed. Sure, there were a couple of mediocre performances, but no bad ones at all. In fact, many of them were quite good, and I'm not just talking about the ones I was in! (You saw me wink, didn't you?)(Actually, I didn't. PFFFFTTH!!!) However, most impressive was the way the kids kept the performances rolling throughout both days, covering the few, brief breaks with entertaining ad-libs and interviews. They did a fine job, and I was both happy and proud that they managed to pack the house and keep it packed most of both days. We actually had people coming back. I'm not sure if I've ever seen that before.

"Welcome to La Bohême!"

I was even happier when the kids got the top award for their promotion poster. It had been a few years. It was too bad they couldn't get another one for that English/Western stage backdrop, though.

The stage is taking shape.

Now ready for the first performance - a horn quintet!

The bar is about to open! But where are all the other barmaids...?

After it was all done we had the initial cleanup (another chaotic mess) followed by the traditional review meeting. It was here that I was probably most impressed. There were a lot of things I'd been planning to say, most of them strict, but the kids wound up saying every single one of them for me. It turned out that they understood perfectly what went right, what went wrong, and what will need to be improved before they become the leaders of the club next year. I went ahead and gave my lecture anyway. There were some tears at first, but then the kids immediately launched into a very active and very productive discussion. It turned out that they were full of ideas, and they seemed even more surprised than I was. Their maturity level seems to have been given a much-needed kickstart, and that is precisely what La Bohême was meant to do.

I only hope it keeps running into next year.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Official Seal of My Personal State of Being

This is my official seal, compliments of the personal seal maker you can find here. What do you think?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Calling All Animal Lovers, Cat Lovers in Particular...

When the SARS epidemic hit Asia, a rumor went around in Singapore that the disease was being spread by cats. This led to the organization of very large and misguided civilian efforts to hunt down and exterminate cats, particularly strays. Apparently during that time up to 200 animals were being killed per day. Well, the SARS epidemic has faded, but neighborhood groups (sometimes with official support) are apparently still rounding up and slaughtering cats.

My blog friend Robin, Singaporean lawyer, Buddhist philosopher, animal lover, and all-around nice guy, has teamed up with some acquaintances of his to provide temporary shelter for stray and abandoned cats while at the same time making efforts either to track down their owners or find homes for them. It's a very large and difficult undertaking. It is also costly.

I realize that Singapore is rather far from Japan, the U.S., or Australia (or the U.K., Macao, Germany, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Turkey, or wherever else my non-Indochinese readers might be), but if there are any animal lovers out there that would be willing and able to help, please either get in touch with Robin or consult the info on his blog. Keep in mind that he is not looking for cash donations. He and the team he is working with mainly need material support. They currently have over a hundred animals in their care, and that's a lot of cat food and kitty litter. Any contribution would be much appreciated.