Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Theory of Experience

"Here," said Mr. K as he handed me a stack of books. "I'd like for you to read all of these."

The year was 1994. The corporate English school where I was working at the time had decided to make a series of tests. The textbooks we were using came with tests of their own, but they were all of the oral interview variety. Our managers had thought that too inconvenient, so they'd decided to convert the oral tests into multiple-choice listening ones; each question would be followed by four answers to choose from, only one of which would be in correct English. Since the original tests had only the questions, that meant that we had to come up with the answer sets ourselves. And naturally, "we" wound up being "me". I didn't think that would be any problem, but apparently Mr. K, my American manager, didn't agree.

"This is so you can do research to find out the kinds of mistakes that Japanese tend to make," he continued.

I honestly thought he was joking. At the time, I'd already been working with Japanese students for at least six years, both in the USA and in Japan. I had a pretty good idea what kinds of mistakes they tended to make. Mr. K himself had been teaching English in Japan for perhaps six times that long. Surely he had heard enough mistakes over the years to have a pretty clear picture. Why would formal research even merit discussion? But he was serious, and he was adamant. Telling me to take my time, read the books carefully and be sure I understood their content, he handed me the stack and sent me on my way.

It didn't take long for me to figure out that the books were no help at all. There was an awful lot of theory, to be sure, but as far as concrete examples of errors Japanese tend to make, what I found was either painfully obvious or totally ridiculous. In other words, it was either stuff I'd already heard on a regular basis or stuff I'd never heard once among hundreds of students in more than half a decade. To make matters worse, it turned out that the authors of most of the books had never even been to Japan, let alone had any realistic experience teaching English to Japanese in a Japanese classroom, and yet here they were using all these wild theories to speculate on what I had to deal with directly day by day. And a veteran teacher with decades of experience wanted me to use these pipe dreams as the basis for my work.

Throwing the books aside with disgust, I sat down and cranked out the answer sets for the tests based on my own experience. Naturally, Mr. K was suspicious at my having finished so fast. After poring over my work, he called me to his desk.

"You didn't do the research I asked you to do, did you?" he asked with the faintest hint of sternness creeping into his eternally pleasant demeanor. "Dr. [X] said in [book Y] that Japanese mainly make mistakes with word order. You should have more word order errors in your answer sets. For example, for this problem..." He then gave me some sample errors that seemed just plain ridiculous.

"Tell me," I challenged, "in all your years of teaching, have you ever heard a single student make a mistake like that?"

Mr. K paused as if totally dumbfounded by my question. Then he replied, ", but... I guess I really haven't, but...I mean... Well... Um, anyway, Dr. [X] says so in his book, and it's generally a good idea to trust the experts!"

This is a very good example of why, though I tend to lean a bit left politically, I tend to be conservative when it comes to teaching. It's not that I'm reluctant to try new ideas; on the contrary, I've tried some "revolutionary" approaches and found some of them to be really good. But as a general rule, I have little faith in theory. I want concrete facts, or better yet, I want to see first hand what works and what doesn't. I want substance. I've seen too many bright ideas put forward by "experts" turn out to be a total bust when applied in the real world. Maybe their theories worked in certain, select conditions, but they didn't where I am. That's why, when someone starts using lots of big words and talking in terms of "ideals", I immediately turn into a die-hard skeptic.

Which puts me in kind of an awkward position right now. I mentioned in my last post that our more motivated English teachers at Ye Olde Academy right now are quoting theories while explaining why my communication course should be abolished. It turned out that there had been a few misunderstandings; they want to modify my course, not eliminate it completely. It also turns out that the theory they're promoting is the one now being embraced by the Ministry of Education and Technology (i.e. they're not just pulling it out of their rectums). It even turns out that I actually agree with some parts of it. However, the central premise of the theory contradicts what my own first-hand experience over the past two decades has taught me and even seems in some ways to be a fancy recycling of the 1980's approach. My job probably isn't going to be changing quite as much or as fast as I thought, after all, but this is still the reality I'm having to deal with now: the reality of people who ignore reality and create their own...and call it progress. This is what I have to fight against.

I'm really starting to sound like an old fart.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Trucks Suck

Yes, I'm in a bitter mood. At Ye Olde Academy it was announced that, thanks to a weird curriculum change, the course that has been the main focus of my work for the past sixteen years is now inconvenient and will therefore be scrapped. To make matters worse, at a recent department meeting in which we discussed what to do with my course, the two most motivated (read "vociferous") teachers basically said we should take this opportunity to do away with communicative English teaching, period. One said, "There's little practical merit in communicative English." The other, while quoting fancy words from some book, said, "Junior high students need to spend more time in passive learning first," followed by, "Communicative English is useless for entrance exams." (Holy shyte, what year is this? Did we go back to 1990?)

In other words, they want to drag English education back several decades in defiance of conventional wisdom, the rest of the planet, the Ministry of Education and Technology, any degree of rational thinking, and simple reality. And I'm told I'm just supposed to cooperate.

Anyway, I was talking about trucks. There was a time in my childhood, no doubt driven by the CB radio craze of the late '70s, when I was into trucks and dreamed of being a truck driver. Actually, I still have a certain level of respect for American truck drivers, since they seem to have certain standards they adhere to.


As for Japanese truck drivers, however...I'm now firmly convinced that they, as a general rule, just suck. My reasons include:
  1. Trucks here basically go, stop, or park whenever and wherever they want and dare anyone to do anything about it. That can include turning or whipping right out in front of moving cars, changing lanes without warning (or looking), stopping in the middle of busy intersections rather than behind the stop line, or parking in the middle of the lane of a parking lot, blocking several cars (including ones that are in the process of backing out when they arrive).
  2. Their tendency to park anywhere also means they tend to block traffic lanes in the vicinity of ramen shops at mealtimes. That can include parking right on corners, making them dangerously blind.
  3. Trucks, especially dump trucks, have a tendency to think they're clever by ignoring the designated truck routes and taking short cuts on narrow local roads which are already barely wide enough for two lanes of cars. I once watched as one dump truck sat and blocked a road until a whole line of cars got out of his way. Another dump truck sideswiped me into a guard rail as he passed me on a curve (but my side bumpers took it with only minor scratches, thank god).
  4. In order not to worry about taking up parking space at their companies or using tolled parking, truck drivers here often park their rigs in the middle of residential areas. They then start their engines in the wee small hours and idle them for long periods to warm them, waking everybody up.
  5. When the government instituted the policy of discount times at automated toll gates, trucks soon started the custom of camping out on the shoulders in front of them until a discount period arrived. Then they would converge on the gates, clogging up expressway traffic badly and worsening the traffic jam problem.
  6. When the government started the strange "grace gate" (my term) policy allowing trucks to waive highway tolls at entry gates to expressways leading to and from the worst earthquake-affected areas (to help facilitate quake relief, at least in theory), trucks soon learned that, by taking a detour on the expressway to one of the designated gates, exiting it, re-entering it, and then continuing on their way, they could use the expressways for free regardless of their destination. One such gate is located in Mito, our prefectural capital. Now not only the gate, but also the surrounding residential neighborhoods are clogged solid with a steady stream of trucks taking advantage of the glitch. And the trucks aren't too careful about where and how they turn around to re-enter the gate, either, and apparently some people's gardens, fences, and cars have paid the price for the oversight.
I still respect American trucks, but here in Japan...trucks suck.

Japanese dump truck
You SUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!! You suck so MUUUUUUUUCH!!!!!!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Creativity or Desperation?

I've really got to hand it to Pepsi. Unfortunately, I'm not sure exactly what "it" is that I should hand them. I'm not sure about back home in the USA, but here in Japan they keep coming up with interesting (weird?), new, flavored versions of their cola. Over the past several years, these have included:
  • Ice Cucumber - The flavor was apparently modeled after the iced cucumbers that are a popular summer treat here, particularly in the Kansai region (Kyoto, Nara, Osaka). Poured over lots of ice, it could actually be strangely refreshing on a hot day. However, drunk straight out of the bottle, especially if only slightly cooled, well...let's just say getting rid of that lingering aftertaste could be a chore. Nevertheless, I continued to buy it for the entire three-week period it was available.
  • Shiso - Shiso is a Japanese herb that is a member of the mint family. It is used to flavor a number of different dishes and condiments including sushi and aojiso dressing. Shiso Pepsi really did taste like it. Mint lover that I am, I actually liked it and drank it frequently, though I saw it make other gaijin gag. It was on the market for about a month.
  • Baobab Pepsi - I'm not sure what to say about this one. The label showed a picture of a baobab tree and animals in an African style. The cola itself was a golden color and had a fruity taste which I assume was modeled after the "monkey bread" fruit of the baobab tree. It was actually pretty good, if a bit sugary like an artificial fruit punch. It's hard to say how long it was sold; it was only widely available for a few months, but one store continued to sell it for the better part of a year. I bought it from time to time.
  • Mont Blanc - The flavor was clearly modeled after the rich dessert of the same name, which is based on chestnuts. I tried very hard to like Mont Blanc Pepsi, which was supposed to have a latte-like flavor, but I just couldn't bring myself to drink it. It just overwhelms the taste buds and leaves them begging for mercy. (Then again, I only drank it while eating, which was probably not a good idea.) Not surprisingly, it was only on the market for a few weeks.
  • Pepsi Dry - Now here was an interesting concept: a cola of reduced sweetness for the stated purpose of giving it a more naturally coffee-like flavor. (Strangely, the #1 ingredient is still sugar...) I actually think it's a good idea, and I like it. I drink it from time to time. It has been on the market for a couple of months now, though it's mainly found only in drugstores and certain convenience store chains.
  • Energy Cola - This is a new one that came out last month. It is exactly what the name implies: Pepsi with added vitamins, proteins, and royal jelly plus stimulants beyond the normal caffeine load. It tastes like (wait for it...) a cross between Pepsi cola and those vitamin drinks that have long been a staple of Japanese life. It comes in a small can that is (wait for it...) the same size as that of Red Bull. It is only sold by certain store chains, but there have been some PR campaigns for it. At any rate, I do drink it on occasion...which is strange, since I have thus far avoided Red Bull like the plague.
  • Caribbean Gold - This one just hit store shelves a few days ago. Not surprisingly, its label has a tropical theme. It is indeed a golden color. Its flavor is based on the white sapote fruit, but to me it tastes (and looks) suspiciously similar to the Baobab cola I mentioned above. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Again, it's good if you're in the mood for something fruity in a sugary kind of way.
There have been others, too. So why does Pepsi keep coming out with all these weird and often short-lived varieties? Well, although Pepsi competes well with Coca Cola in the US and elsewhere in the world, here in Japan it is still a hill to Coke's mountain. A lot of Japanese will tell you they've never tried Pepsi and have no reason to, or have but don't see any need to drink it again. The reason is that Japanese society has always been very ordered; everything here has tended to be based on established "if - then" statements, and in the minds of most people here, if it's cola, then it's Coke. Thus, you could say that Pepsi really has nothing to lose by trying out all kinds of inventive ideas to get the public's attention. It also provides a healthy bit of variety...even if it doesn't always taste so good.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Music Camp 2011

Well, yet another summer training camp for the Ye Olde Academy music club has come and gone. Once again we were up at the Ohshima Forum in Nasu near the Nasu Yumoto Hot Spring. Rather than write a lengthy journal about it, I'll just give you the highlights:

  • The food was much better...and artsier...than I'd remembered.
  • Since they didn't give me any time to rehearse with the Flying Eggheads jazz band, I had no music-related work on the schedule at all. My main job was to use my BLUE RAV4 and once again be the BLUE TAXI, ferrying people to and from the shinkansen (bullet train) station down in Nasushiobara City. I also had to take care of all the shopping trips to prepare for the nightly welcome parties for the guest clinicians.
  • My taxi outings included one incident where I was sent to pick up one guest clinician who'd happened to arrive with another at the same time. The student in charge of scheduling the clinicians had already asked the hotel to pick up that second clinician, so they both wound up going in the hotel van together. Meanwhile, I made the half-hour trip, sat for an hour at the station before calling the hotel on my cell phone (and finding out my charge had already arrived there), and made the half-hour trip back, missing dinner. Naturally, nobody bothered to ask the hotel to set aside a late plate for me. My Family Mart dinner was enough to tide me over till the inevitable drinking party anyway, so it was okay.
  • The weather was cooler and rainier than normal, which also meant fewer bugs. No complaints there...
  • I did end up taking care of the extra practice and training sessions for the new 7th grade wind players, however. That's always fun, though it takes a lot of patience.
  • Since I'm in charge of arranging tunes, I also had the job of preparing music sheets. I didn't have much to do in that department for the first two days, but there was a sudden rush on day 3. It was a damned good thing I'd brought my laptop and a copier/printer.
  • Actually, the copier/printer I got for the music club two years ago, a rather nice Brother model, broke. They didn't use it at all last year (while I was in Australia), and whoever used it for the school festival two years ago left the ink cartridges inside (a serious no-no for that model). I managed to get the colored ink to work after monkeying with it for almost a full day, but black wouldn't budge. I gave up and went shopping in Nasushiobara City. I stumbled on a good Epson model that had a "Today only: 60% off" sticker on it, so I snapped it up. It got suitably broken in. Hopefully it'll last longer than two years.
  • The hydrangeas that line the main roads there were in bloom, as usual, but they seemed more vividly colored than I'd remembered.
  • On the last day, Herr Maestro Ogawa asked me if I could "improve" the (professional) arrangement of a tune being practiced by the junior high orchestra, a Sound of Music medley. While I was thinking about it, our new club counselor, a graduate of Ye Olde Academy and an alumnus of the music club, suggested we work on it together. She's good at ad-libbing on the piano, so I grabbed my sax, and we went to the piano in the hotel lobby to brainstorm. We came up with a whole bunch of cool ideas, and then we wound up having an impromptu jam session (earning some applause from clinicians and students up on the second floor balcony above us). That was fun!
  • After several years of strong showings and successes in contests including being #1 in our prefecture in our division last year, our concert band is currently in maintenance mode. We lost almost all of our "muscle" to graduation and quitting. Our brass section in particular is now made up of young, inexperienced members who probably should have been given more training last year, but were ignored in favor of all those strong players (a common trap to fall into). We're at the point now where perhaps our most significant guest clinician ended his stint at the camp by basically telling the band not to worry about it since they clearly weren't going anywhere. (Way to build confidence, guy...)
  • The orchestra isn't in much better shape. It has the same brass players. Moreover, the violin section is also weak even though it's mostly made up of older, more experienced (but not necessarily more intelligent) players. Herr Maestro Ogawa actually let me direct the last orchestra session of the camp so that he could take a break (though I practically had to twist his arm to let me do it). It felt good, but it was also kind of depressing. I'm used to the kids being better than that. They seem to be trying their best, however, and I can't ask for much more than that.
  • There was an unusual amount of bad blood and bad vibes this year. The 11th graders (the eldest members since 12th graders don't participate), who are supposed to be in charge of everything, were divided into feuding factions. The leader of the sax part suddenly teamed up with all the junior high members and started bullying the lead alto player, the strongest and most diligent member. There was similar clique-forming and excluding happening all over the club, mainly among the younger set. And in the teacher/clinician fraternity, a huge percentage of the dialogue consisted of caustic criticism of the teacher who directs the concert band. They just went on and on and on, ripping on him brutally, mostly behind his back (when they believed he couldn't hear...though I know better). Certainly, a lot of that criticism was on the mark, but it got to be agonizing to listen to...especially since I've had the experience of being ripped on in a similar manner myself (though only once to my knowledge, it was only one conversation they thought I couldn't hear, and the clinicians actually stuck up for me). To make matters worse, when the topic of the one year that I directed the concert band at the contest came up, Herr Maestro Ogawa immediately countered with the same, old story: the oboe solo that I couldn't fix, but he did. That happened a decade ago, but apparently he still considers it "proof" as to why I shouldn't direct the concert band, though he won't say so directly. (Then again, it's a given he doesn't believe the current director could do any better...or even as well...which really makes me wonder.)
  • Perhaps the bad vibes were influenced by the radiation level. We found out shortly after we'd arrived that a group of college students doing independent research had discovered the Nasu area to be a "hot spot". Apparently the prevailing winds had been blowing directly from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, and the recent spikes had had some effect on our location. It wasn't high enough to be dangerous, especially during our brief stay, but it was kind of scary, especially since it rained so much.
  • As I headed out to go home, I finally stopped at a place clearly indicated on my car GPS navi system and frequently advertised in local pamphlets. It turned out to be a really cool little mall-let filled with gift, craft, and novelty shops. And even though Nasu was crowded, that mall-let was not! I love places like that!
Anyway, another year, another summer training camp. Next comes the school festival...