Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Seagull Cries and Gut-Dwelling Ducks?

Last Saturday, June 23rd, was the day of the 2007 Kashima Philharmonic POPS Concert [pointless link] (kind of wobbly fanfare).

As usual for a Kashima Phil POPS Concert (repeat fanfare) we had a wonderful, action-packed program guaranteed to be fun for the whole family. And of course we had a couple of guest stars to round it all out. It was a kick-out-the-stops, no-holds-barred, shoot even if you don't see the whites of their eyes kind of deal. An adventuro allegro con fuoco, or something like that.

Or at least it looked that way on paper. It sure should have seemed that way. I don't know what it was about this particular POPS concert (yeah, yeah...repeat fanfare). Maybe it was because I wound up with a whole pile of other, mostly work-related activities dumped on top of me right around the same time. Maybe it was because those other activities kept forcing me to miss rehearsals. Maybe it was because all the tunes I was playing seemed almost ridiculously simple, especially compared with last December's Beethoven/Weber/Mozart marathon and the extra heavy POPS concert the June before that (rhythmically complex but off-key fanfare). Maybe it was because I was starting to feel a trifle redundant in the clarinet section. Whatever the reason, when it came to this concert I just felt distracted, unfocused, even apathetic.

I have to wonder whether others in the orchestra felt the same way. I say this because, compared with last December, we were kind of lame. Don't get me wrong; it's not that we sucked. No, we don't suck anymore. Not like we used to. There was a time when we REALLY sucked. We have gotten over that. We weren't sucking now. But we were definitely sounding kind of...lame.

As we came into the usual final rehearsal marathon (read "wiping the performers out just before the performance") I could tell Mssr. Maestro Ogawa was getting a bit frustrated. It was bad enough that he was having so much trouble getting principal players to come to the regular rehearsals. Now he was having trouble getting said principal players to play with much gusto. I'd like to think that they were just saving their chops for the main event (like they should, actually). To me it just seemed uninspired and unmotivated (i.e. lame). that I've totally darkened the tone of this post, I'll go on to a rundown of the actual concert.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2007 Kashima Philharmonic POPS Concert! (Um...fanfare?)

Once again, despite the 2000 yen ($18) a pop ticket fare, we came on stage to find a packed house waiting for us. We tuned up and kicked off the show with a rousing rendition of J.P. Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever", the first time Mr. Ogawa has allowed us to play that since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. (Does that mean he has finally forgiven us?) Then the emcee, Koneko Edoya, one of our celebrity guests, came out and started his patented brand of wacky but very talented banter.

The first thing Mr. Edoya did was an introduction of the individual orchestra instruments for the kids. He had a representative of each instrument, in score order, stand up and, after a brief explanation, play a short tune and then do some kind of animal call. Yes, you read that right. Animal impersonations are one of Mr. Edoya's specialties, and he's quite good at it. However, that doesn't mean that we were. The individual performance blipverts went pretty well for the most part. As for the animal calls, well, two violae(?) stole the show with a cute rendition of "Neko Funjatta" ("I stepped on the cat") including the poor cat yowling, the oboe did a good goose, the bassoon did a better bullfrog, the clarinet (me!) did a seagull that Mr. Edoya said was excellent (Yay!), and the horn did a pretty good elephant. Other than that...probably better not to comment.

After that was our big production number, "Peter and the Wolf", narrated by one of our other guest stars, the chief of a local theater troupe. I had always wanted to try playing "Peter and the Wolf". So guess what? I didn't play it. For a number of reasons that responsibility fell to Mrs. Ogawa. (In retrospect, that might have been better. The clarinet part in "Peter and the Wolf" is really nasty in a few places. It's the only piece we've tried to date that I sincerely doubted I'd ever master without lots and lots of practice time, and I didn't have that luxury.) However, even though I missed out on playing the regular clarinet part, I DID perform. During the last part, when Peter and the others are parading the just-captured wolf on their way to the zoo, we changed the arrangement of the piece so one line (Peter's theme in a march style) repeated, and on the second time I and a dixieland combo marched into the concert hall playing it in jazz style. I was dressed up as grandfather (complete with a beard), the trumpeter was Peter, the trombonist was the cat, and the sousaphone player was...well...a patch of forest. We marched together with a couple of guys in medieval huntsmen costumes carrying a big, stuffed wolf on a pole. (One of our clarinetists made the wolf herself, and it was damned impressive!) We marched up onto the stage and mimed along with the last bit of narration. At the climax of the piece, the huntsmen surgically removed the duck from the wolf's belly. (You had to see it to believe it.)

Part Two of the concert started with J. Strauss' "Fruehlingstimme" ("The Voice of Spring"), a nice waltz. It was my turn to be out of the rotation, so I spent the time kicking back backstage. Then I went on for our guest vocalist's set. This time our singer was Kazuko Matsumoto, apparently an up-and-coming operatic soprano who lives not far away but is already experienced overseas. She sang Puccini's "My Father", a Japanese children's song called "Inu no Omawari-san" ("Dog Policeman") (my arrangement), and a recently popular song, originally of Irish origin, known in Japan as "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" ("Become a Thousand Winds"[?] or perhaps "Sent to the Four Winds" might be better) (also my arrangement). After that the singer left the stage, some players changed seats, and we played a medley from the Disney classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves". Then the singer came back and we did a medley from "The Sound of Music".

Our first encore was the theme from the movie "Exodus" (known in the U.S. as "The Ten Commandments"). Then we brought the singer back and played that lovely (if a bit hackneyed) tune "Itsumonandodemo" ("All the time however many times") from the movie "Sen to Sen no Kamikakushi" (English title "Spirited Away"). Finally, we closed up by following a (very aggravating) Kashima Philharmonic tradition: Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance". The huntsmen came out with the wolf again, balloons and streamers were tossed around, a bunch of students from Ye Olde Academy wearing angel wings danced in the aisle, and the crowd eagerly clapped along, but unfortunately there was no standing ovation this year.

Oh, well. The crowd definitely seemed pleased, and the comments we got were, with one or two exceptions, very favorable. We gave another gift to the people of Kashima, and they seemed to appreciate it. That is the most important thing, after all.

As for me, I went from thinking, "Oh,'s the day of the concert, isn't it?" to "Oh, wait...the concert just ended, didn't it?" Still distracted.

As always, we quickly cleaned up and headed off to our favorite cafe/wine bar for the post-performance bash. This year Mr. Ogawa kicked it off by announcing his resignation as conductor and stomping out. Rather ended it all on a bad note.

Now what?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kyuri Cola???!?

This probably falls under the category of "only in Japan", but I don't know. I hope some of you will correct me on this.

The beverage industry in Japan has always been one of particularly heated competition. Come summer, it turns into open warfare. Even before the start of the June rainy season the stores and many vending machines are already sporting a host of new types. Some of them are products from overseas imported to test on the Japanese market. Others are wholly (or partly) native concoctions. Some, like Vanilla Coke, survive through the summer only to vanish and never be seen again. Others, like the mysterious Acerola Cola(???!?), don't even last that long. At any rate, you see a lot of new faces (well, labels at least) on the racks this time of year, and it's hard to tell which are going to be winners and which are in desperate need of having kitty litter scooped over them.

Pepsi has always been one of the more aggressive players. Long the underdog in Japan cowering in almighty Coca-Cola's bloated shadow, it has resorted to some pretty wild tactics to grab a bit of its red-and-white rival's market share (some of which have backfired and sullied its reputation, such as dirty pool competitive advertising, which is common in the U.S. but doesn't go over well here). This year it seems to be pulling out all the stops. Now that its Pepsi NEX is locked in a dead heat with Coke Zero, it has started a renewed drive to market Mountain Dew here. It has also produced some wacky new forms of flavored Pepsi Cola, including spicy red and... cucumber???!?

Yes, it really does taste like cucumber. Specifically, it tastes like the chilled Japanese kyuri cucumber that is so popular (and so delicious) this time of the year. It's bizarre...but I find I actually like it. That's a sure sign that it's going to be a bomb.

Has anyone else seen it. especially outside Japan?

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Friday, June 22, 2007

The Middle Kingdom

There is a long-popular expression here in Japan which translates as, "If you want the best life has to offer, you should have an American house, a Japanese wife, and Chinese food."

I have always admired the long, rich history of China and the wonderful culture it has created. The mystical "middle kingdom" is often a source of wonder for Westerners such as myself, and we can't help but appreciate the many gifts that have come to the world from this ancient nation. I also greatly appreciate all my ethnic Chinese friends and acquaintances, particularly the ones I've met over the past seven or eight years thanks to the wonders of the internet. There is no other country like China on Earth, and there probably never will be. It is a unique treasure, one to be regarded with great respect.

Even so, right now circumstances beg the question, "Just what is up with China?"

It is so ironic that the same China that so clearly demonstrated the dark side of socialism with such disasters as the Great Leap Forward (led to famine and starvation), the Cultural Revolution (basically a civil war within society that displaced and/or killed thousands if not millions), and the Tiananmen Square incident (the People's Army versus the people...and the people lost) is now showing us the dark side of capitalism. It used to be just that China was notorious for pirated goods. Now it seems like there has been an explosion of scandals just over the past several months. Pirated CDs, videos, DVDs, software, and computer parts from China are nothing new. However, now we've seen contaminated pet food and agricultural products sold in the U.S. and elsewhere. We've seen fake medicines and toothpaste containing banned toxic chemicals sold here in Japan. We've also seen counterfeit department store gift certificates smuggled into Japan that were so sophisticated that they even had replicated hologram seals (though they were flawed enough to be spotted by alert officials).

The Chinese government has assured Japan that these have been fairly isolated incidents that have taken place as a result of corrupt officials at the local level. Promises have been made to crack down on them, and already a few such wayward officials have been caught and sentenced to death. However, considering the scope of the problem, these few cases, though very high profile, amount to little more than a scratch on the surface. It is widely reported that there are entire towns in Fujian province that have been turned virtually overnight into giant industrial complexes whose sole purpose is apparently to crank out bogus products for sale overseas. The fact that some if not many if not most of these factories have been using slave labor came to light recently when the government exposed and punished corporate managers and local officials involved in such practices. Again, though these crackdowns have received a lot of media attention, they amount to a drop in an apparently vast and growing bucket. Even more chilling is the obvious sophistication of the counterfeiting industry as evidenced by the recent fake department store gift certificate scandals. Not even holographic seals are entirely foolproof. It is at the point now where investigative journalists are reporting companies in Fujian province now have the capability to replicate just about anything. It is hard to imagine that such an industry has come to be only with the complicity of local officials. But if the national government of China is privy to all this, one has to wonder to what extent and for what reason.

I repeat: What is up with China? One thing is for sure, Japan is worried.

source (NCTimes)
source (IHT)
source (BusinessWeek Magazine)
(another one)
source (The Age - Australian)
source (Asia Sentinel)
source (China Elections)
source (Chinese Wiki)


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Education Stops in the Home

Speaking of teachers and education, I read a rather hair-raising (but I guess not all that surprising) article in my newspaper a couple of days ago.

Back in the early nineties, when I first came to Japan to teach, the biggest problem facing teachers here was gang violence. That was back when the James Dean image was hip. "Cool" guys wore their hair in greasy duck-butt styles, swaggered around with their faces frozen in a lip-jutting "I'm so bad" sneer, spoke in slurred speech, and got into fights a lot. Unfortunately, many if not most of them also tended to carry knives, which makes me wonder how the rate of injury, let alone death, remained so low. Actually, the problem didn't really seem as serious as all that, but it was still the #1 cause of worry and stress for Japanese teachers. (#2 was the outlawing of corporal punishment, which was still a fairly recent thing.)

Cut to the twenty-oughts. Most students of today have no idea of what a duck-butt style even looks like; now the "hip" kids tend to have ratty-looking hair. The swagger has been replaced with an unmotivated shuffle. The "I'm so bad" sneer has been largely replaced with a vacant expression. Instead of slurred speech nowadays one tends to hear a childish whine. Instead of knives, they carry cell phones and portable game systems.

So what is the biggest problem facing teachers in Japan today?


Troublesome parents have gotten to be such a serious problem around the country in recent days that many school districts are now employing special counselors whose job is specifically to deal with them. Other school districts are having their teachers take special training courses on how to deal with problem parents themselves. Apparently the number of parents that make unreasonable demands of their kids' schools and become harassing, disruptive, and even threatening if they don't get their way is reaching epidemic proportions. It's at the point where it's actually interfering with the effective function of many schools.

Examples of the kinds of things teachers are having to deal with nowadays include:

  • Parents that insist their child be given special privileges, such as being provided with a custom-tooled school lunch on account of their picky tastes or being excused from a (required) school subject that they don't like,
  • Parents that demand their child be exempted from school rules,
  • Parents that insist their kid be given special extra credit for a weak subject, claiming it results from some kind of odd (and totally unproven) handicap,
  • Parents that demand a particular kid other than their own be transferred to another class if not kicked out of school even if that kid has never gotten into any trouble,
  • Parents that go ballistic if their kid gets in trouble, is given the slightest criticism, or is prevented from doing what s/he wants,
  • Parents that demand the school intervene in their own family issues, such as a domestic dispute between the parents,
  • Parents that blame the school and threaten legal action when their kid winds up being caught shoplifting, smoking, etc..

The list goes on and on, but keep in mind that none of these is new. Such parents have always existed. However, they were generally a rare occurrence until recently. Now they're common to the point of posing a serious problem. I suppose it's a mark in favor of the Abe administration that they're actually trying to do something about it, but they seem to be missing the whole point. Why is it that problem parents have become so widespread these days?

Some politicians and corporations have been trying to blame all of Japanese society's ills on Westernization, but I think they are missing a very basic point. The fact is that many if not most of the parents of elementary and junior high school students nowadays grew up in the eighties, the peak of the so-called "bubble economy". In other words, they grew up in a life of convenience and were indulged by their own parents. Now they are parents themselves, and they can't tolerate the slightest twinge of dissatisfaction. The world has to bend over backward to accommodate them, or they are being cheated out of their worldly due. We've arrived at an era of spoiled brats being raised by spoiled rats.

I suppose there's nothing we can do other than simply doing our best...and hope we don't inadvertently wind up being the target of a hate campaign. I've already seen it happen. Believe me when I say it wasn't pretty.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Something to Harp On

I'm enjoying a very nice, little mini-concert during lunch break here at Ye Olde Academy (D major harp arpeggio). Two student teachers, both graduates of our school and former members of the music club, are performing a violin & harp duet in honor of the fact that their training period here is coming to an end. It was something thrown together hastily at the last minute (and someone misspelled "violin" in the flyers they printed up), but it's sounding good. They've also managed to attract quite an audience.

Student teaching in Japan works differently from that in the U.S.. The student teachers are only here for a period of two to three weeks. During that time they're expected to observe as many different classes as possible and hopefully also get some hands-on experience. Then, at the very end, they take charge of a class for a "study lesson", i.e. a demonstration lesson that is observed and critiqued by a number of members of the faculty. At the very end, their performance is graded by their assigned supervisor.

Actually, this time I am such a supervisor, and it is the first time for me. I asked to be in charge of one particular student teacher, Ms. S, partly because no one else wanted to do it (man...but our English department staff know how to make excuses and complain...) but mainly because I had given her individual instruction when she was a 12th grader. My main responsibility is oral English communication, and I figured that would suit her perfectly. There is also the no small matter that she is a former member of the music club. In fact, that's her sitting behind the harp.

The first tune they perform is "When You Wish Upon a Star". The violinist is training to be a music teacher. I don't remember her as having been such a skilled performer in her days as a student here at Ye Olde Academy, but she has learned and grown. Now she plays quite well. Ms. S is also doing an excellent job on the harp, which is amazing considering she hasn't touched one for at least five years. The fact that that huge mass of students piled into that hot, humid lobby is listening intently is a testimony to just how enchanting their performance is.

Yes, we're at the end of Ms. S's three-week tutorial period. It hasn't been a cake walk, and it has had its shares of accidentals, unexpected meter changes, and brutal sixteenth-note runs. It was bad enough that I had never trained a student teacher before, so I wasn't really sure what to expect or what I had to do. There was also the no small fact that we had never had a student teacher focus on oral communication before. It turned out that Ms. S was doing her graduation thesis on the use of public speech training in the English classroom, something I already happened to be doing in my 9th grade oral communication lessons. However, we also found out at the last minute that, thanks to combination of politics, apathy, underhandedness, and a serious scheduling screw-up, a different student teacher had been assigned to teach MY 9th grade oral communication classes (in place of the Japanese teacher with whom I usually team-teach those classes)! That left my own student in limbo, so she decided not to bother with the public speech bit and concentrate instead on my 7th grade O.C. classes.

The next song they play is the theme from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". It's hard to go wrong with Disney when you're playing for kids, but it is a nice tune (that I have performed myself a number of times). The crowd is still growing, and I can't help but notice it's mostly 7th graders. We must have more than half of the entire grade!

Ms. S definitely seemed cut out for the teaching profession. She speaks English fluently, which isn't surprising since she just came back from a year of college study in Bellingham, Washington. When we met for the first planning session she also couldn't help telling me all about her visit to Portland. She seemed pretty excited about it, since she'd known it was where I'd grown up. She also had a ball pointing out that she'd noticed people there talk in very much the same way I do, i.e. the words I tend to use and the way I tend to pronounce them. (I got my revenge by pointing out that she pronounces the word "bank" the way they do in the Pacific Northwest, not like it says in the dictionary.) She also has a positive yet very determined attitude and really likes the kids. She did have a couple of weaknesses that needed serious attention, though. One was her gentle, high-pitched voice, which neither carried well nor conveyed much authority. The other was her tendency to lose her certainty on occasion and look a bit lost during the lesson, particularly if the students weren't being responsive. Most teacher trainers in our faculty focus only on lesson content from an academic standpoint. I have never agreed with that approach, and I hardly touched it at all. Instead, I concentrated mainly on voice coaching and image training figuring she'd be bright enough to get it and hoping I wasn't making a terrible mistake.

The next tune in the mini-concert is "Moon River", a sentimental favorite of mine. The two performers still sound tight even despite the 9th grade attention whores chimpanzees who have suddenly decided to start kicking up a fuss in the neighboring partition.

During the first week Ms. S mainly just observed my lessons and took notes. After that we tried team-teaching, with me leading and her assisting. Finally we reversed roles. Team teaching is virtually the rule rather than the exception in Japanese English education (except at Ye Olde Academy). It is also normal in my 9th grade lessons, but I had never tried it in the 7th grade classes. It seemed to work well from a practical standpoint, but I could tell Ms. S was finding it difficult. It was bad enough leading a lesson in an unfamiliar format with any degree of confidence. The fact that her "assistant" (i.e. me) was older and more experienced than her...not to mention both her former teacher and her current trainer...proved more than a little intimidating. She had some trouble finding her legs at first. There was also the problem with her voice sounding thin and whiny when the students started getting a bit worked up. I occasionally had to fight the temptation to bring the class back under control for her because I knew that wouldn't help. Instead, I just stepped up the "image coaching". Toward the end she finally seemed to be getting it, though she still wasn't very confident.

The final piece of the mini-concert is announced as "Ave Maria", and I feel a bolt of dread go through me. There are two different tunes that bear that name, one using a melody by J.S. Bach and the other by Schubert. Both are lovely tunes, but the Schubert one poses a dilemma. It is one of a few musical pieces that, for some reason known only to my subconscious mind, always brings tears to my eyes. (Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it accompanies that agonizingly tear-jerking ending to the animated movie "A Hound of Flanders"...though when I was 7 years old its appearance at the end of Disney's "Fantasia" sent me into a mad fit of weeping which my mother still misunderstands even after all these years.) It's pretty much a given that hearing a beautiful violin and harp rendition of the Schubert piece performed by two former students of mine (and a current trainee) would end with my being humiliated in front of all those uniformed students. Fortunately, they play the Bach piece. It's lovely, but the tears stay just where they're supposed to...on the surface of my eyes. Of course, those damned 9th grade apes are still trying to make a rival spectacle, so maybe my mad longing for a spray can full of chloroform is helping.

Yesterday was the day of Ms. S's demonstration lesson, which was to be in the fourth period in Room Five. Luckily, we also had a lesson in Room One in the first period that would serve as a handy dress rehearsal. We'd decided to stick with the team-teaching format, so there weren't many changes from what we'd already been doing. Unfortunately, Room One has always been a somewhat cold, apathetic, and unresponsive class. Ms. S got greeted with a lot of mumbles and blank looks. I tried to hint that that's perfectly normal for Room One, but she took it very personally. Once again, her resolve started to buckle halfway through the lesson, and she looked visibly lost. When the lesson was over she was more than a little distraught. We quickly retired to the English department office for a final briefing (and pep talk) only to have the department chief, Mr. U, angrily boot us out. (Apparently my coaching, all in English, was annoying him. For[expletive]give [expletive] me, your [expletive] highness!) Needless to say, when we headed off to the demonstration lesson just before fourth period she looked almost about ready to fall apart.

As it turned out, there was quite a crowd of observers, more than usual for a demo lesson. I think a lot of people wanted to see the first-ever English O.C. demo class, not to mention the first-ever team-taught demo class (controversial enough as it was!). Unfortunately, very few of the guests were from the English department. Mr. Ogawa was there, as were several social studies and Japanese language/lit. teachers plus most of the other student teachers. It was quite a crowd. However, our own department chief, Mr. (expletive) U, wasn't there, and I was dismayed to notice that the few English teachers present were all members of the old guard (including one youngster who thinks like the old guard). It was pretty much a given that we were doomed.

Fortunately, Room Five is always a great bunch of kids to work with. They're smart, enthusiastic, interested, and responsive. They also ask lots of questions. That did a lot to buoy Ms. S's confidence, and she looked firmly in control from start to finish. She spoke with a strong, authoritative tone and stayed on her legs the whole time. As for me, I did my best to assist but ONLY assist, leaving the conducting of the lesson in her hands as much as possible. I think she did a very good job, and she seemed quite happy about it. The fact that most of the observers stayed in the room clear till the end of the lesson despite the total lack of seating spoke volumes. A number of them even questioned students after the lesson was over, which I took as both a good and a bad sign.

The comments that came in afterward were generally good. Many if not most of the other student teachers said that they envied her. The teachers from non-English departments all said they thought it impressive, if perhaps just a little too slow paced (which was also my own, single critical comment). Even the deputy and vice principals, who had both observed the lesson, had mostly very positive things to say. Wouldn't you know it, the English teachers weren't in agreement. We got mildly flamed during the English department follow-up meeting. One of the old guard teachers said that the lesson pace was "just right" but griped that we'd spent too much time with "irrelevant" matters (such as making sure the students understood what to do). Another teacher blasted as "irrelevant and confusing" a quick review point I'd thrown in directly related to the students' just-completed studies in phonics. One younger teacher with a bizarrely old guard mindset complained about the fact that we'd team-taught the lesson, saying that team teaching was obviously too distracting and unmanageable to be practical. Only one younger and more progressive-minded teacher had seen our lesson, but she kept her positive comments to herself till after the meeting was over. By then it seemed moot.

After that, the teacher who had criticized our having team-taught the lesson took Ms. S aside and proceeded to flame-broil her for almost half an hour. I'm not sure what exactly he said (and Ms. S either can't quite figure it out or doesn't want to tell me), but she wound up coming to me in tears afterward. After that there really wasn't a whole lot to be said.

The mini-concert is over, but the mostly 7th grade crowd isn't going to let them go without an encore. They play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", that heartwarming classic that offers a naive yet very pleasant feeling of hope for the future.

Ms. S and I had our own chance for an encore today. We had one more lesson together, this time an O.C. class in 7th grade Room Two. Room Two is a unique and interesting class. Those kids are truly live wires. They are wild and crazy, and they don't hesitate to say just what's on their minds. More than one qualify as potential problem students. (In fact, one of them has already more than qualified as a problem student!) However, they're also the top-scoring class by far. They're nutty and noisy, but they're also bright. They also love engaging the teacher (as opposed to spiting or ignoring him or her). Ms. S and I didn't bother making a plan. We just sort of winged it. I wound up leading the lesson for the most part, but we traded off some. Meanwhile, the students treated the lesson material like a new game to be played. They also kept up an almost constant stream of good questions. We got through the textbook lesson without any trouble or boredom, and we were able to conclude with a game of "I Spy". When it was all over, Ms. S looked exhausted but happy.

She was even happier when a trio of girls from Room Two followed us outside as we were returning to the staff room and said, "You have to stay at [Ye Olde Academy]! You just have to! You and [Moody]-sensei have to be a team, and you have to teach us until the end!" When Ms. S informed them that she had to go back to her college to complete her course and get her teaching credentials, they suggested that she get a job at the academy as a cleaning lady...but one with classes (, classic Room Two words of wisdom).

The mini-concert really is over now, as is Ms. S's student teaching endeavor. But at least she's leaving here with a sense of hope for the future, no matter how naive or pleasant.

Pre-post update: Ms. S went and had another talk with that English teacher who'd roasted her, mainly so she could confirm just what he'd been trying to get at. In a nutshell, he accused her of being lazy and not taking her efforts seriously because she'd team-taught with me instead of doing everything herself. He said something like, "If you really think you want to be a teacher, then you have to learn how to teach through your own efforts, not by working with anyone else." Considering many if not most of the other student teachers had simply mimicked their trainers using materials prepared by their trainers, I don't see what the problem is, particularly since I'd made her plan our team-taught lesson herself for the most part! Oh, well. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, even if it's a young dog pretending to be old.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I learned something very significant today.

Someone who is well over thirty and doesn't exercise regularly should NOT, I repeat, NOT play basketball with junior high kids.

Today was the seasonal class matches for our 7th graders. Basketball was one of the games the girls were playing. I was sent there to supervise, but I took pity on the girls of my own class, who only had four members available. That meant they could neither field a full, five-person team nor replace members midcourse. They wound up getting soundly stomped during their first game, so I took pity on them and joined in the second. In doing so, I discovered several things:

  • Contrary to popular belief, 7th grade girls in Japan definitely know how to play basketball.
  • Some of them are damned good shooters even though they are less than 5' tall.
  • However, the average height of 7th grade girls in Japan is now considerably higher than it was ten years ago, and they can be pretty tall.
  • The spirit of Bushido (the way of the warrior) is apparently very much alive and well in them, and they can be quite aggressive, even brutal, when the game gets going.
  • Playing cautiously on account of your larger bulk and delusions of superior physical prowess can put you in serious danger.
  • On the other hand, playing full out means you're liable to knock over if not plow through somebody, which will earn you a sound, feminine scolding at best and those insidious, feminine tears at worst.
  • The girls do not suffer the same limitation; they can crash and plow into each other...and into you...with impunity.
  • There is a very big difference between hauling heavy loads and running around at a full sprint for seven straight minutes trying to guard five much more maneuverable kids.
  • The gym floor is harder than you probably remember.
  • Muscles that haven't really been used much in ages like to complain.
  • Lungs that haven't really been used much in ages like to make you miserable.
  • Aerobic overload can and will make you dizzy.
  • Unlike you, 7th graders don't get tired.
  • Sweat-soaked clothing, particularly a dress shirt and slacks, does not dry very quickly in a humid environment, and it continues to smell bad for an extended period.
  • It's damned fun!

We wound up losing 14-16, but that was still better than my girls' 0-16 stomping in the first round. I think I got rid of a centimeter of waistline, too. Maybe I should do something like that more often.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

From Oregon with Love

In the last post mention was made of the Japanese TV drama entitled "Oregon Kara Ai" ("From Oregon with Love"). I thought it might be a good idea to explain what that was all about since most people visiting this blog probably have little or no idea.

The series "Oregon Kara Ai" appeared on Japanese television in late 1984. As with virtually all Japanese TV dramas, it was only intended to last one season. There were a total of thirteen one-hour episodes. The story had a definite beginning, the plot followed a definite path of development, and it came to a definite conclusion.

The story centered on a nine-year-old boy named Akira. After his parents were killed in a car accident, his elder sister went to live with an aunt and uncle in Tokyo, and he was sent to live with his other aunt and uncle, who happened to have a farm in central Oregon. It was obviously a very difficult situation for Akira. He not only had to suffer the loss of his parents and separation from everything he knew, but he also had to deal with going from comfortable urban life to the middle of nowhere in a foreign culture. It was pretty hard on him, but he also did his best to make it worse. At first he rejected everything and was hostile toward everyone. His aunt and uncle's attempts to make him comfortable tended to wind up in the garbage. Coldly refusing even to try to interact with his new classmates, he made himself a target for bullying. He also tended to keep calling his sister in Japan on the phone (without permission) and try to get her to find a way to get him back to Japan. Another problem was the fact that his aunt and uncle seemed to have quite a network of Japanese acquaintances in Oregon...and some of them were openly contemptuous of their adopted home. (One woman went so far as to describe Oregon as being a trap from which there is no escape.) Despite it all, Akira does eventually come around. He finally comes to accept and appreciate his aunt and uncle. He also becomes more and more fond of Oregon, but apparently not enough to stay there. Thanks to his earlier efforts to return to Japan, he winds up doing just that...though he's not as happy about it as he'd thought he'd be.

It is a very heartwarming, family-style drama. The story is also accompanied by beautiful background music and stunning shots of the Oregon landscape, mainly focusing on the north-central area between the Cascades and the Columbia Plateau (Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, the Three Sisters, the Blue and Wallowa Mountains, the Deschutes River, the John Day River, the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls, the Painted Hills, and Lake Billy Chinook, to name a few shots that I recognized). The show was an immediate hit in Japan, and it led not only to a surge in Japanese tourism to Oregon in the late 80s and early 90s but also inspired eight two-hour television movie sequels, the last of which aired in 1996.

The DVD cover for the sequel movie entitled "Oregon Kara Ai '87". The main characters are still the same.

It might be significant to note that "Oregon Kara Ai" was actually a sort of side project. The same production team, some of the same cast members, and, for the most part, the same background music composer were already producing another highly popular and even more successful series of TV dramas and sequel movies entitled "Kita no Kuni Kara" ("From a Northern Country"), a rather "Waltons"-like story set in Hokkaido. The original drama ran in 1981. The most recent sequel movie, which apparently brought the whole thing to a climax, aired in 2002.

Quick aside update (after Ladybug's comment): "Oregon Kara Ai" was mainly filmed in and around the "city" of Madras, Oregon (pop. 5,078 in 2000, though the actor River Phoenix is reportedly a native). (Hmm...the official city website uses Wikipedia as its main source about itself...!) While the series was being made, Madras was already famous for another reason. In 1981 a cult leader named Baghwan Shree Rajneesh arrived at a ranch his followers had bought in the tiny farm community of Antelope (pop. 136 at the time). He then set to work bringing in followers (who all wore red)and converts from all over the world (many illegally). First they seemed quiet and harmless, but they suddenly overwhelmed and took over Antelope, which they officially renamed (wait for it...) Rajneesh. They didn't stop there. After a few years it came out that they were engaging in all kinds of subversive activities (wiretapping, stockpiling assault weapons, experimenting with bioweapons to name a few) as part of an apparent effort to establish a Rajneeshi kingdom. When investigations of the cult increased, the city of The Dalles (county seat of Jefferson County, where Antelope/Rajneesh is located) suffered a suspicious mass salmonella outbreak for which Rajneesh's chief lieutenant openly claimed responsibility. Then Rajneesh himself went on record trying to blame all the subversive activity on his lieutenant. The FBI wasn't very sympathetic. Rajneesh was arrested and expelled from the U.S., taking his cult with him.

Madras is across the line in Wasco County, but at only 70 miles away it is the closest major town to Antelope. A lot of the Rajneeshi cult's activities took place through there, and it was their chief source of supply. It was also the main base of operations of legal (and illegal) and investigative operations against the cult, and for that reason Madras was indicated by Rajneesh himself (and later admitted as such by his lieutenant) as another intended target for poisonings and germ attacks if not a full-scale invasion. "Oregon Kara Ai" was made while all this was going on...and it all looks so peaceful!

Incidentally, on another totally different note (G#?), the English-language Wiki-drama entry says that an alternate title for "Oregon Kara Ai" is "Kita no Kuni Kara - Oregon Kara Ai" ("From a Northern Country - From Oregon with Love"), meaning "Oregon Kara Ai" is part of the "Kita no Kuni Kara" series. However, the Japanese-language Wiki-drama entry says that this is a mistake. Apparently there is a widespread misconception (in both Japan and the U.S.) that the two dramas are related since they are similar in nature, were made by the same team, and star some of the same actors. However, there is no direct connection between them. There is also no connection between the original, Japanese Godzilla and the pathetic imitation that appeared in New York not too long ago. Have a nice day.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Japanese Smile

We had a concert at Ye Olde Academy today, the first of three Saturday Afternoon Concerts for the 2007-2008 school year. It was enjoyable as always, but it showed that there was definitely room for improvement. After that was the first general meeting of the Music Club Parents' Association (very peaceful-sounding fanfare), which thankfully went quickly without any bumps.

Anyway, once all that was done and I was on my way home, I passed a tiny little fire station on a back road just as the (miniature) fire engine came rushing out, sirens blaring. I quickly pulled off to the side of the road to let the fire engine pass. I then continued on my way, but after only another three hundred meters or so I found a whole herd of fire engines parked on both sides of the narrow road, obviously the destination of the truck which had passed me (though its home station was clearly the closest! Go figure...). Both professional firemen in full gear and volunteer firemen in jeans and T-shirts were hustling about with their hoses and things, attacking a fire that was blazing in a nearby field. The latter was bordered closely by a few houses and a shrine, but none of them appeared to have been affected yet. Considering I drive by that field on that narrow road twice every day on which I go to work at Ye Olde Academy, it was a bit of a surprise seeing that fire and all that activity.

A typical local fire truck in Japan. This image was taken from the website of Yokosuka City, but the one that passed me was very similar.

However, what really surprised me was all the rubberneckers (i.e. people coming to watch). Even on that remote, little back road out in the middle of the sticks, there was quite a crowd gathering. Now, that's not particularly unusual, but I couldn't help noticing that many if not most if not all of the people gathering to observe the spectacle were smiling.

A fire in one's neighborhood isn't usually cause to smile. However, you have to remember that this is Japan, and in Japan a smile can have a totally different meaning. It brings to mind the time back in the late 90s when a new installment of the Japanese TV drama "Oregon Kara Ai" ("From Oregon With Love") was being filmed, and the Japanese TV company decided to use American directors to make it more authentic. They ran into some trouble when they were doing a scene in which a middle-aged Japanese woman opened her wallet to pay for some groceries (at an Oregonian shop) and realized she had no money. The Japanese actress expressed embarrassment as most middle-aged Japanese women naturally would: she smiled. That sent the American director into a tizzy, as he'd naturally expected something more along the lines of bugged-out eyes and a wide-open mouth. The Japanese interpreter saved the day by explaining the cultural difference to the director, who then decided to allow the actress to give her natural, Japanese response (even though he still didn't get it).

It is often said that the Japanese smile is like a mask to hide behind. It is something to flash when one is feeling troubled. You see it here when someone is frightened, stressed out, or angry. On his wife's or girlfriend's face, it is a sign that a man is in deep trouble. It is the first response I get whenever I call on a student to answer a question. Perhaps it is an extension of the Japanese concept of wa (harmony), hiding negative emotions behind a pleasant face. After all, I'm sure the people in that neighborhood were feeling shocked, worried, maybe even frightened. There were lots of unpleasant feelings in response to an unpleasant situation. Therefore, it was only natural that they were dealing with it in the customary way, by hiding it all behind a pleasant smile.

Either that or it was schadenfreude on a massive scale.

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It was actually a good day today. It was chilly and drizzly this morning, and I was so overcome with fatigue (read "lack of sleep") that I thought for sure I was going to pass out several times during the day. Still, it refused to be a bad day. My classes today all went really well, even the one that tends to be really annoying most of the time. My afterschool cleanup crew did their jobs well and without complaint. The Flying Egghead's rehearsal today for tomorrow's performance, the first of the new school year, sounded great. The student teacher I'm training has so far been just outstanding. The PTA meeting at my kids' school that I was not only obliged to attend but chair was a bit of a hassle, sometimes downright humiliating, but we managed to get everything done alright with a minimum of fuss (and I managed to stay awake till the end...quite a feat, I'd say, all things considered!).

But then I came home to some news that hit me like a rubber mallet to the skull.

Remember the father-and-son team that did the roofing and aluminum siding as part of our home construction project? The father being that awesome, old man with poor hearing but a quick wit, skilled hands, and a wealth of knowledge about his trade? The son being that youngish-looking, thirty-something man who was not only a skilled worker but also was so great with my kids (who saw him like a big brother) and helped us so much with different things on the side like moving heavy furniture?

Well, it's no longer a father-and-son team. Now it's just the father. Only about a week after the work on our house was finished, the son got in a car accident. He wasn't seriously hurt, but apparently he had an expired license, no insurance, and he was driving a car whose mandatory safety inspection was long since past due. To make matters worse, the accident was apparently his fault. He was looking at a considerable expense in fines and compensation...not to mention possible jail time. He had already been suffering from a degree of depression for various reasons (something I'd noticed while they were here working). This last affair proved to be just too much. He wound up taking his own life.

Things like that aren't supposed to happen.

The old man is still going as best he can, but he looks understandably weakened. I really have to wonder what's going to become of him and the trade he has run for so long. I guess our house was the last thing his son worked on. We have that to remember him well as the soccer ball he and my kids had so much fun kicking about during his breaks.

You just never know, do you? All I know is that I'll never look at my new walls and roof the same way again.