Sports Day!

In Japan, Sports Day is a big event for elementary and junior high schools. In Japanese it’s called an undōkai (運動会), and it’s usually held on a Saturday or Sunday. Most schools that I know do it on a Saturday, at least all of my schools in my area do. Usually, the Sports Day is chosen by the city’s Board of Education, so then all of the schools under that jurisdiction will have Sports Day on the same day. Itako 2nd and Hinode JHS usually have their Sports Day in May/ June. Some schools schedule their sports days during cooler months, but in my area we are in the heat and sun all day long. This year I went to Itako 2nd Junior High School’s Sports Day.

Sports Day is a really important event for the schools. About two or three weeks before, students will practice their chosen sport events (some are chosen by the students and some are considered “traditional” and chosen by teachers at the school). My students would at first just practice for the event during P.E., but a few days preceding Sports Day we had half days devoted to rehearsals for it. Students will have their tamaire to practice for as well as their sports events. Tamaire are performances by the school band and presentations by various school clubs as well as individual and group competitive events.

Students and teacher at the schools will get divided into team colors. My school had red, blue, and yellow. I’m not entirely sure how they divide up the students into each team, but they are grouped together about evenly with students from all three school grades. They will each get about two or three teachers that are their coaches for the Sports Day event. I was on blue team this year because the English teacher in charge of me, Nesaki-sensei, was also on the blue team.

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Kanazawa-sensei, the brass band teacher, standing beside the blue team’s sign.

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The blue team dragon sign.

The teams compete during the events to collect points through victories. Whichever team has the most points will win a trophy.

And that’s part of one of the reasons the event is important for the students. The parents come to the school to watch their children at the event. As a part of Japanese culture, the children are a reflection of their families, so when the kids win then the whole family wins. The losing teams can get upset, because they feel like they’ve let down their parents, and also their teachers, for not succeeding. However, most parents and teachers just brush it off and tell their kids it’s fine to lose if you tried your best, at least they do at my school.

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The yellow team lost this year.

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Not even a dragon could save them.

Every team also compete for another trophy: the Best Dance Trophy. Every team memorizes and practices a dance that they must perform in front of family and friends. They get judged by the PTA, the Principal, and others for who did the best show. The kids enjoy this part the best, I think, because it can be a lot of fun to choose the music and the dance moves together. This year, the red team won the best dance.

Some of the sport events for Itako 2nd were the running relay, the three legged race, tug-of-war, an obstacle course, and the “grab the color” game where boy students put a smaller boy on their shoulders. All the boys are wearing helmets, and they try to grab a colored piece of fabric off another boy’s helmet. This event terrifies me, because without fail every year someone falls and gets hurt.

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Students doing a kind of obstacle course race.

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See?! Kids be fallin’ all over the place.

Sidenote: If you’re wondering why the faces are covered, it’s because I’m actually not legally allowed to show pictures of my students online, as in blogging, Facebook, or any kind of social media. I can only do it if their faces are unrecognizable and their names on their shirts not seen. High school ALTs can usually take pictures and post them wherever and no one cares, but most elementary and junior high schools forbid it. They are trying to prevent possible perverts from tracking down the kids in the pictures. If you’re an ALT at those levels, be sure to ask permission before you post any and all pictures of your students as you could get into a huge amount of legal trouble if you don’t.

This year, the blue team won! We made it through with the most points and even did a victory lap. I was exhausted at the end, but it was all good fun. This makes it the fourth year for the blue team to win. Let’s see if they’ can keep it up next year!

 

Graduations, Spring, and New Life

Right now my life is going through a period of renewal. In March, my third years graduated from both Hinode Junior High School and Itako 2nd Junior High School, and next month a whole new set of first years entered the halls. Sakura flowers were blooming, announcing the arrival of spring. They came and went so fast that I feel like I didn’t get the chance to take enough pictures. On my Facebook newsfeed I saw that my old alma mater had its graduation this month, with the class of 2014 probably the last class I knew personally back in day. Lastly, I’m getting prepared in little ways here and there for the big move to Tokyo, arranging things so that when I’m gone my successor can take over with as minimal amount of trouble as possible.

The graduation ceremony I attended for Itako 2nd was on a Wednesday, much to my befuddlement. Usually graduations fall on Fridays or Saturdays so everyone can go out drinking afterwards to a nomikai (drinking party), but for some reason the Board of Education decided Wednesday sounded better. Since I was at Itako 2nd JHS that month, I went to their graduation and missed Hinode’s. However, I made sure that the third years at Hinode got my congratulations card in February. I made a cute little pink card with a message, a small picture of me, and stickers on it.

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Sorry, but due to legal reasons, I’m not allowed to show pictures of my students.

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Student work on display

In Japan, graduating from junior high school means a lot to students. Unlike in the United States, students in Japan have to take rigorous tests in order to enter high school. High schools also have different levels, and if a student gets into a top level school, then odds are good that student will go on to a great college. Getting into a top level college means being able to get basically your choice in career. Students really feel pressured in their third year of junior high school to study, study, study! After they pass a test, they can relax, but until then it’s very high pressured.

The 3rd Year sensei

The 3rd Year sensei

Also, after graduating from junior high, there is little to no guarantee they will see some of their best friends again. Some students might see each other again on break or maybe on the weekends, but that depends on if they can manage to make the time. I don’t have any students leaving town this year (that I know of), but last year a student moved in with relatives up in Mito to go to a high school there. If parents can afford it, they may even move so their child can go to a high level high school all the way on the other side of the country. Not many parents in my area can afford such a move, but it’s not unheard of in Japan.

On Wednesday, the ceremony was very formal. Students wore their freshly pressed school uniforms, entering into the gym with heads held high, no smiles on their faces (because serious business in Japan means no smiles). The strong masks crumbled when the students started crying when their names were called out to accept their diploma. Girls cried the most because it’s expected of them, but several boys did as well.

I will admit, I cried too. I knew these students back when they were first years. The school made a slide show for the parents to see with a first year picture on the left and a current picture on the right. I made it to the songs, and then I broke when the students started singing about never forgetting the memories they made here. I wept. Me! I didn’t even cry when I broke my wrist in sophomore year of college. Other teachers were teary eyed, so I wasn’t alone. I felt really proud of the students in that moment, and I couldn’t stop.

After that, I headed off to take pictures of my students. The first year and second year students made two lines outside the school’s front entrance, making a pathway for the third years to go through in the middle. Parents were at the end of the path with cameras ready. Everyone clapped and shouted, “Omedetou! (Congratulations)” as the third years walked down the line. I took pictures of them as they walked by and received a letter from a student who I talked with regularly after lunch. I even took a picture with her and many other students.

Going home that day, I noticed the sakura trees had little, tiny sakura blossoms. The beginning of the new year finally arrived. The sakura blossoms always make me think of dogwood trees. For a split second, I thought of Kentucky and the Dogwood Trail back in Paducah. I missed picks the flowers off the trees and tossing petals into the wind. Spring in both countries makes me feel nostalgic, strangely more so than any other time of the year.

Pretty blossoms!

Pretty blossoms!

I recalled my graduation from Transylvania University. My family, once a very rigidly divided structure of Dad’s family vs. Mom’s family, actually came together for it. I felt so proud walking up to get that diploma, elated at the prospect of moving all the way to Japan in just a few months time. It’s still hard to believe that graduation was three whole years ago today. My students think they’ll have all the time in the world to discover what they want to do, but I bet the time will fly just as fast for them as it did for me.

On that note, congratulations to the Transy class of 2014! I hope wherever life’s adventures take you, the memories you gained at university bring a smile to your face (and if all goes really well, a job or graduate school).

People back home are starting their new lives left and right. My good friend, Jessica Short, recently married the love of her life, Stacey Long. I am so happy for her and so sorry I couldn’t be there. Between the move and everything else tied to it, I just couldn’t afford to go. I hope that it was as beautiful as I imagined, if not more so. I hope her new start is every bit as amazing as she dreamed it would be. My other friend, Daniel Puthawala, recently got engaged to his long time girlfriend, too. Congratulations to the both of you!

I felt revitalized by all the changes going on around me. I’ve thrown my energy into preparing for the Tokyo move, rearranging the apartment, getting organized at my desk, writing up lesson plans with explanations for how to do this game or that worksheet. I want my successor here in Itako to come into my spot with basically all the materials ready for him or her, just like Lauren did for me.

And so, congratulations to my successor, whoever you are! You’re going to love it here. I just know it.

可愛い食べ物: All the Cute Foods!

Japan’s deep love affair with food presentation existed supposedly even before the Heian period (10th/11th Century ), making it one of the oldest art forms in Japan. Most people touring Japan will want to try out the common foods such as sushi and sashimi, but while those seafood cuisines are indeed as delicious as they are pretty, I actually prefer the presentation (and sometimes even performance) of the desserts.

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The caramel paw prints are just the best!

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Totoro and Pooh-san drawn by waiters at a Korean restaurant in Shin-Okubo.

At many restaurants in Japan, the desserts are given special treatment with toppings or syrups to create fantastically elaborate portraits or characters on the dessert or on the plate. They tend to fall away from the traditionally minimalist nature of Japanese cuisine, allowing for more explorations for how to use ingredients to create a more complex feast for the eyes.

Japanese cuisine in general uses seven methods of food arrangement, and how to use each method varies depends on the ingredients and chinaware.

  • Sugimori is a standing or slanting arrangement
  • Hiramori is a flat design with slices of sashimi placed vertically
  • Yamamori is mound-like
  • Tawaramori are blocks of food placed in a pyramid
  • Yosemori is gathered
  • Chirashimori is gathered but with space between the ingredients
  • Ayamori is woven (which is considered one of them more difficult forms to master)

Using these arrangements as a basis, chefs can develop their own styles of presentation. Red, yellow and green are integral colors for Japanese cooking, so balancing all three in a presentation makes the food look appealing and bright in Japanese culture. Lastly, a triangular (three-sided) shape on the plate looks quite pretty.

As you can tell in the picture below, the basics of Japanese cuisine are all there: Colors red, yellow, and green are laid out in a chirashimori style, but there’s also a space dedicated to an artistic rendering of a certain famous comic feline. What’s amazing to me is that this treatment is considered standard for most restaurants. Rarely, I find, does the presentation cost the customer extra money.

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Garfield approves my choice in waffles.

The exception to that rule is when the waiter/waitress is a part of a themed cafe such as the Pirate Cafe I went to with my friends Emily and Megan. There the girls let you watch them draw the designs and characters on your food. They also sing or do some kind of pirate shows if you pay more.

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We got to choose what kind of design we wanted on our food.

A small side note, at a theme cafe it’s generally alright to take a picture of the food and the restaurant itself. However, before to ask to take pictures of the the waiters/waitresses working there. Some places will allow it while others won’t. At the Pirate Cafe in Akihabara, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the pirate maidens.

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I chose a cat and freaked the girl out because she didn’t know how to draw one. Oops!

Also, while the food wasn’t terribly expensive, the table charges at themed restaurants can be pricy. Be sure to ask how much per hour it is to be at a table.

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The kanji is for ‘pirate.’

Even at convenience stores, sometimes they will have some cute special edition sweets that you can only get at one specific chain for a certain amount of time. Sometimes they will have special edition things that are movie or anime tie-ins. Not so long ago, there was “Attack on Titan” gear and foods being sold at the 7-11 combinis, and Pokemon does its rounds through the stores every other month or so.

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A delicious chocolate bear cake!

Most of the time the cute foods in Japan will not only look adorable but they will also be super delicious! I feel like in the U.S. I often had to choose between something that looked cute but probably tasted like preservatives and future cancer, and then the delicious foods that were just kind of slapped together with no real thought into how it looked. In Japan, I feel like I get the best of both worlds, both great taste and great art.

Only In Japan: Cute Construction Characters

 

Construction sites, while necessary, are some of the biggest annoyances on the road. They’re dirty, noisy, and cause a lot of trouble. Cars can get backed up for miles because of some city project or another, triggering road rage in even the most temperate driver. There’s nothing to be done about it, shoganai. We just have to resign ourselves to this irritating fate.

Unless you live in Japan, in which case there’s actually something to look forward to with construction. In many Japanese cities they have character road guides and blocks. In most cases the characters are animals or famous things associated with the city. For example, I often see the deer character in my city and in the city of Kashima. Kashima city’s character is the deer (shika). The city’s soccer team is even called the Kashima Antlers and they have a deer mascot.

The two characters seen in the picture below were taken at a construction site just outside my apartment. The deer is obviously from Kashima, but the giraffe was a new one. I asked a teacher why the giraffe and she told me that unusual or really famous cute characters, such as Doraemon or Stitch, are used to tell people that it’s a school zone or that there are children around in the area and to be careful.

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The giraffe on the right is to warn people “CHILDREN PLAY HERE.”

In Kamisu, there are dolphins and bunny characters. I only saw the dolphin character once in the three years I’ve been here, but I’ve seen the rabbits many times. The rabbits come in about three or four different colors. I’ve seen them in yellow, pink, and blue.

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Pink bunnies at a construction site near Kamisu City Hall

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Yellow bunnies seen in Tokyo near the Emperor’s Palace

The idea behind them is to kind of soften the look of the ugliness that we often associate with construction. Instead of getting as upset as we normally would, the characters are there to distract from the stress of the situation and to make people think of adorable things instead.

Also, the bright colors are meant to alert people in either the day or night time to use caution on the road. The big eyes are meant to sort of shock you, because when people see the eyes at night they might think it’s a child or some kind of animal for a split second, and so hopefully drivers slow down around the work in progress.

However, some people in Japan want them removed because they’re too distracting and may actually cause accidents. The argument they put forth is that these characters make it harder for drivers to just concentrate on the road and instead get their eyes fixed to the cute bunny or deer instead. And so then, the distracted drivers won’t be able to react to a situation going on in front of them.

Personally I love them. They do make the long stretches of stop and go traffic in the midst of construction more bearable in my mind, so I hope Japan decides to keep them. I hope to see more of them soon!

Third Time’s the Charm: An Iris Princess Again

The Itako Iris Festival is on from today (May 25th) to June 29th. I’m only there on Sundays, but I have the honor and pleasure of serving with 15 other Iris Princesses this year who will be there more often than me. The Iris Princesses are at the park on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-5.

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I am waaaaaaay in the back

Today was the perfect start to the festival. The weather was nice with the sun hitting the iris flowers just right, making them really vibrant. There are over one million of about 500 different kinds of purple, yellow, and white iris flowers at the park.

This festival has been around since 1952, when iris-lovers placed cut iris flowers in beer bottles as decorations in for the festival. Until 1955, the Itako area was built upon a system of canals. For that reason, when a new bride and/or her goods were to be transported to her new home (the husband’s family home) it was done using a Sappa boat. These traditional boats are still used in Itako as tourist attractions. People can ride in the boats and enjoy the beautiful scenery as they travel up and down the rivers.

And to this day, the Bridal Boat (Yome-iri Fune) wedding send of ceremony is performed with a bride at the Iris Park. After arriving at the ‘Itako Bride’ memorial, the bride will walk along the pathway to the boat with her matchmaker and the boatman, then the boat will set off. Often the groom will be waiting at the Wai-Wai Fantasy dock.

The other Iris Ladies and I spent all day posing for pictures and helping people find their way around our little town. I even helped out a few foreigners that came to the park, which has never happened on the first day before.

The park this year is selling some cute straps and plush goods, which they didn’t do last last year. I want them all!

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The mini Ayame-chan character strap

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The big plush Ayame-chan

On the weekends is the Iris Bride send off event. That’s at 11:00, 14:00, and 19:00 (but times are subject to change). There are several events during the festival, such as traditional Japanese dancing and mochi making. We’ve also got boat rides up and down the river that are quite fun.

 

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By the way, the park is (semi) famous! It was featured on a recent Japanese suspense/ thriller drama on Fuji TV. They actually came to the city and filmed parts of it right here in Itako. Isn’t that cool?! I got to watch it tonight. It was kind of awesome to watch it and go, “Oh my God! I’ve been there!” I thought it was particularly cool because someone was even murdered in a river that I’ve been to (television murder, not real life, obviously).

It’s easy to get to Itako via the Kashima-Orai Line from Mito or the Suigo-Itako Bus from Tokyo station. If you’ve got the time, please come on down!

The Hectic Days

I’m getting to that point in the year when I want to just come home and pass out after work. For the next two weeks, I’m looking at no days off and a whole lot of overtime. Interactive Forum requires that I train students until 5 or 5:30 p.m. Also, I went ahead and agreed to be an Iris Princess (Ayame Musume あやめ娘) to make this the third year I represent my Japan hometown. And lastly, I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level N3 (a.k.a Conversational Level).

For Interactive Forum, I’m trying to increase the level of my students’ English abilities, but it can be difficult to do that and keep the training times fun. If the students aren’t having fun, the entire hour can become this awkward affair where no one wants to talk, and the whole point of it is to make students converse in English. As you can well imagine, it’s frustrating as all get out when they get into this strange funk.

Usually I can bring them out with what I like to call “Crazy English,” where I introduce myself as someone famous and pretend to be that person instead of myself. For example, “Hi! My name is Sailor Moon. I fight evil in my free time. I like sweets very much. Nice to meet you!” The students get a kick out of that. However, I’ve got to be careful to balance having fun and keeping them focused on the task at hand.

My third years, who are fourteen or fifteen years old, can really help me out with doing the harder parts. At both of my schools, I’ve designated a third year student as the sempai of the Interactive Forum group. If I’m not there for some reason then they’re in charge until I show up, and if I need a translation they will be the ones who do so to the other students. It’s actually very important, I think, for ALTs to utilize the sempai system set up in the Japanese classrooms. It can be a great tool to utilize when you want to get things done in class or clubs.

It is really rewarding to watch my students’ progress from simplistic sentences to having actual full conversations. To have a student go from answering “Do you like AKB48?” with just “Yes, I do.” to him/ her responding “Yes, I do! I like them very much. My favorite member is ______. Do you know her?” That’s just one of the most awesome experiences to have as an ALT, to know that you’ve been able to guide your students to that point where they can take what they’ve learned in class and actually use it.

Still, as rewarding as it is, I feel a little bit worn out from coaching sometimes. Last week turned out fine, but I can recall a few moments last year when I showed up and I knew from the get go the session was going to be a fight to speak. I’m anticipating that next week, when the Sports Day (undōkai 運動会) practices get rolling, the whole group will show up exhausted and not wanting to do anything. And it’s my job to make them, hooray!

That’s going to be a problem for me since I’ll probably be extremely tired as well. Last year, I worked for the Itako Iris Festival (Itako Ayame Matsuri 潮来市あやめ祭) on Saturdays and Sundays. I went with the wiser choice this year to work only on Sundays, since I know I’ll need one day devoted to planning on moving to Tokyo/ Chiba, depending upon where I’m placed for my new job. However, this weekend requires that I work both days since it’s the opening weekend. I’m glad to be doing it one last time, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not looking forward to not one single day that I can recharge my batteries.

This year the city wasn’t able to find another foreigner to be an Iris Princess, so I’m the only foreign woman working this year. As such, I’m probably going to be featured a little more for campaigns than in the previous two years. I feel torn about this possibility, because on the one hand I’ll be kind of given special treatment, but on the other hand the expectations for me are higher than previous years. I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out. I’m nervous about it.

I’m not so nervous about the JLPT, though. Honestly, I meant to take the test back in December, but I missed the deadline for registration. This time I was on the ball and got my application in on time. I’ve already been studying for it since before December, so I’m confident that I’ll at least pass. I’ve bought all the books and test materials for it.

But on top of everything else, I wonder if perhaps I jumped the gun a little bit.Two years ago I tried for the N4 (Upper Basic Level) but I didn’t pass. I did the same kind of schedule I’m going to do soon, wherein I work six or seven days a week along with studying for a test everyday. Back then I actually hurt myself from the stress. I couldn’t study kanji for a good month afterwards. My brain actually flat out refused to process any new Japanese, so I took a break. I feel like this time will be different, since I started studying way back months ago and because I know I will get Saturdays off, eventually.

With the 31st being Sports Day, it looks like the rest of the month of May is just one big block of WORK. And then in “free time” it’s actually “study time.” Next month looks like work unless it’s Saturday, but even then I’d imagine the Saturdays will be devoted to the very long list of “Things Jessica Must Do Before She Moves.” I’m praying that when all is said and done my students will have better English speaking abilities than before we started practice, I get through the Iris Festival in one piece, and I pass the JLPT with flying colors.

When It’s Time to Move On

February is the annual JET contract renewal decision month. My supervisor asked me with a hopeful smile on her face that I would stay another year. Actually, if I wouldn’t mind, they would allow me to stay the full possible five. She’s been telling me this since November, and since November I wrangled with my heart and mind over what to do.

Many former JETs told me when I got here, “Don’t wait too long to leave. If you feel it’s time to go, then go. Don’t stay where you are just because it’s comfortable. You will regret it.”

I always hated the vagueness of these words of wisdom. What does the feeling entail? What does too long even mean? How is comfort a negative thing? I asked these questions and more, but none of them could accurately tell me.

They just said, “You’ll know.”

From experience now I understand what they meant. The feeling isn’t just one feeling, it’s an accumulation of different feelings attached to certain things associated with working and living in one area.

I’ve lived in Itako for two and a half years now. If I let it sink in, that fact astounds me. Didn’t I just arrive yesterday? Where did the time go? Unbelievable, and yet true. I made a home in my 2DK apartment, putting up pictures of friends and family. I rearranged the entire place ten different times, added my own little touches here and there, tried to put my identity in a cozy space. I went on several amazing adventures with countless inspirational, caring, and beloved people. My Japanese skills improved with time, to the point I no longer need aid when it comes to complicated tasks like getting a new phone. I owe all of this happiness and warm memories to Itako.

What I didn’t expect was that the feeling can be a misnomer, because for me the big part of my decision came from a lack of feeling. I realized in December that the thought of not renewing my contract didn’t inspire feelings of panic or sadness at all. I felt excited at the prospect, and even started looking online at jobs in other areas. I knew on a cold December evening a few days before Christmas that I wanted to move to Tokyo.

Nostalgia goggles are tricky. I knew that come next year things that bothered me in the past wouldn’t change. On the weekends I’ll probably be left with few options for entertainment, probably opting to leave town to go to Kashima, Kamisu, Mito, or Tokyo to meet up with friends. Most likely, I’ll be watched, talked about, and monitored by everyone in my community. For dating, the options are limited in a country side area where there isn’t much dating material, and dating means “with intent to marry” and I don’t want to get married.

I now understand that staying too long means deciding to put your mental well being at risk of stagnancy instead of pushing for growth. I heard from many an ex-JET and ex-Interac how easy it can be to “get stuck” in the same place every year until it’s time to go. A routine is vital when living abroad. It gives stability when in all other situations we ex-pats feel out of control or lost. Going to work, teaching the same textbook year after year, I felt like I wasn’t in a routine anymore but instead getting into a rut. I tried to mix up the lesson plans, but even that didn’t make me feel like I was actually pushing my limits. I realized when I came back from winter break that staying and doing the same thing every single day for two more years could do more harm than good for me.

And that’s how I discovered how comfort can be a trap. The comfort of a routine, of daily activities and habits, means I can feel safe in the knowledge that I know what to expect. I see the same people every day, and I can usually predict how they’re going to behave. When I first arrived in Japan, I felt extremely unbalanced because I didn’t know what to expect for the first few months. The idea of starting all over again is scary, and that fear can be paralyzing. What if it doesn’t work out? What if my new situation is worse? What if I mess it all up? A thousand doubts pop up, but it’s easy for me now to say, “I did it once. I can do it again. I’ll make it work.”

I felt no urge to return to the United States. Even though I missed many people I love dearly, I couldn’t imagine going back home. Honestly, I can’t imagine leaving Japan for another couple of years at least, because in my heart still resides in Japan. I might return someday in the far future, but for now I’m not ready.

When I told my supervisor, she seemed disappointed, but she understood. Three years was a good run, after all, and she wished me luck. After she left, I felt guilty for leaving her with the chore of finding my replacement, but I knew I couldn’t say yes. I went back to work, determined to get things done.

In July, I will move on to a new life.

China’s Horcrux: Tibet

Reuters (Beijing) recently reported about possibly the most hilarious use of a fictional character used as an insult in the political arena, with China and Japan calling each other Voldemort. China specifically referred to Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine as “a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest part of the nation’s soul.” While I commend Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming for his extensive knowledge of the Potter-verse, I would like to counter argue that if the Yasukuni Shrine is Japan’s horcrux, then Tibet is China’s.

Free Tibet

China committed mass genocide in the Cultural Revolution that killed over a million of the Tibetan people. Also, where Japan had comfort women, China had Thamzing, which was the torture and/or killing of any “political dissenters” (i.e. anybody who the Red Guards didn’t like). There were labor camps, executions, and numerous human rights violations.

Yes, the Yasukuni Shrine visits are a very hot topic, but Abe basically gets little to no choice in the matter. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. While their are war criminals at the shrine, there are also war heroes there as well. Would it be fair to neglect the people at that shrine who died to defend their country from the American invasion and subsequent occupation? How could Abe defend his stance not to go when the daughters and sons of those brave soldiers beg him to not punish the memory of their family’s noble deeds because they share the same space with dishonored men?

China hounds Japan for an apology for all the horror it inflicted in the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, but how about China apologizes for the 2008 crackdown against Tibetan protestors? How about China apologizes to Tibet for still occupying it long after it’s been made abundantly clear that Tibet doesn’t want to be a part of China? How about apologizing to the Dalai Lama for trying to kill him more than a few times?

Now, Abe talking about revising the Japanese constitution to allow for militarization and the recent Senkaku Islands debacle looks suspicious. Abe wants the U.S. out of Okinawa to make way for Japan’s new military base, and that definitely makes China uncomfortable , too. China has every right to point out there’s some shady goings on over here in Japan. I would be suspicious too if my neighbor and I were having a land owners dispute and then suddenly my neighbor came back with a license to carry and a gun.

However, it’s not a black and white picture that China, as well as Korea, try to paint it to be. Both China and Japan are complex countries with complex cultural views, and each considers their part in World War II with different sets of eyes. What’s obvious is that both China wants the world to view Japan in a negative light, and Japan wants the same for China.

At the end of the day, neither China nor Japan are Voldemort, but each definitely have the characteristics that reflect an alignment with Slytherin house. Yet, as many fans on Pottermore will attest, Slytherin doesn’t equal evil. Wanting to attain power isn’t a bad thing, because power can give a country the ability to take care of its people. Both China and Japan are ambitious countries that want to be taken seriously on the international front, but unfortunately this recent news makes them both look a little ridiculous.

And it’s a rotten shame, because the issues are far from trivial.

Share Your Christmas! For Tohoku Children in Need

During this season of giving, I want to ask for those people living in Japan to help the children of the Tohoku region. A wonderful little charity called Share Your Christmas is collecting children’s toys and other items to give them. The event lasts from December 21st to January 31st. All you have to do is send a present of your choice to:


Share your Christmas
c/o Jeffrey Jousan
Katsuragi Nesaki 45-1
Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0824
Japan

Please wrap your present in clear wrapping paper so they can know whether to send it to a boy or girl.

 
For more information see
the website: http://www.shareyourchristmas.org
or the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/shareyourchristmaswithtohoku

Thank you and Merry Christmas/ Happy Holidays!

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How to Piss off This Foreigner in Japan: Results Guranteed in Ten Seconds or Less

Let me set the scene: Lunchtime, sitting with two Japanese teachers and one school nurse. I sit there, munching away at my food, listening to the conversation with little initiative to pipe in. I usually eat lunch with the kids, but most of them are off at sports tournaments so I just decide to eat lunch with the teachers.

Lady Japanese teacher speaks to me with food in her mouth, “Jessica, ahadkjdksjknnkfnn.”

Say what? Was that even Japanese? Dear Jesus, gross. “Uh, hai?” So confused.

School nurse proceeds to try and help. “Ano, tsugi ga…nashi?”

Next nothing? What is she talking about? Next class nothing? Next day nothing? I stare blankly at her confounded.

Abruptly she bursts into laughter and shouts, “Eigo wakanai!” I don’t understand English!

I sigh. I was going to tell her to just go slower, but then she does the thing I hate the most.

School nurse turns to another teacher and asks, “M-sensei….?”

Male teacher shakes his head profusely, “Zen zen.” I don’t know English either.

They proceed to laugh and have a conversation right in fucking front of me about their lack of English ability and my lacking Japanese skills. I breathed in and out, deciding I’m just going to sulk (which I know logically is the wrong reaction, but fuck it), and tune out the rest of the conversation.

I don’t know about other expats, but certain things really piss me off when it comes to how some Japanese people try to talk with me. Here’s a top ten list:

#10: Food Talking

Be it food or gum or some kind of breath mint, if someone tries to speak to me with garbled Japanese it gets ten times harder for me to understand someone. One time, some Japanese guy tried to talk to me while slurping ramen, and all I could think was, ‘Seriously? Seriously?” 

Not only that but it’s super rude to me when it’s food. I don’t want to talk when there’s stuff spitting out of your pie hole. Chew, swallow, and then talk to me. It’s common courtesy and it prevents murder, as in from me wanting to murder you.

#9: Giving Up

Now, I’m not talking like if we’ve been attempting communication for the past hour and can’t get anywhere, I’m talking like a sentence and then utter shut down. It took seconds for the people in the above situation to decide that they couldn’t talk to me and just gave the fuck up.

#8: Calling Me “Gaijin-sama”

This is just a pet peeve of mine. A literal translation would be something like “Miss/Mr. Alien” and that’s what I think every time I hear it. I know it’s supposed to a formal “Miss Foreign Lady” kind of idea, but that still seems really strange to me. Instead, call me by my name or “gaikokujin” or literally anything else.

Hell, I’ll even accept, “Heeeeeey, sexy lady!” (Sidebar: PSY made this a thing. I can’t go a month without this getting shouted at me by some guy.)

#7: Stereotype Anger

I get this more often than I’d like. People get to know me and they’re somehow surprised I’m not a gun loving redneck who thinks A’murica is the greatest nation on the planet. I’m actually a chocolate loving dork with redneck tendencies who loves America but knows it’s quite a flawed place. I’ll forgive the annoying but understandable, “You don’t look like an American.” which makes me sigh often, but that I can blame on Hollywood and bottle blondes.

I can’t readily forgive, “You really don’t act like an American. You should try and be a little bit more (insert something ridiculously stereotypical here).”Or getting mad when I do something completely “un-American.”

Look, I’m a human being. I’m not a stereotype. I’m a living breathing sentient person who has her own ideas, thoughts, and feelings. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit into your idea of how I “should” be, but screw you. I like who I am (most days), so get used to it.

#6: Expecting Me to Know You When We Met ONCE

Guess what? Don’t expect me to remember you from that one encounter at the grocery store. I get that we might’ve had a fun conversation a month ago, but unless we got attacked my mutant velociraptors together I’m simply not going to remember who you are.

I realize it’s easier to remember me. I’m the only (obviously) foreign woman living in this town. I get that seeing me makes you excited and that you’re super happy that you can talk to me again. I can’t say that meeting yet another person who is fascinated is a new thing. It happens all the time.

#5: Speaking Louder to be Understood

This problem is very common. People will see my confused face, and instead of going slower (which is infinitely more useful tactic), I get someone suddenly yelling at me like I’ve insulted their honor.The worst “conversations” I’ve had involved people yelling information at me with their dial turned up to eleven and continuing to do so even when I’m speaking at a normal level.

This annoyance makes my ears ring, which makes it harder to understand what you’re saying, and thus it makes me unable to communicate with you.

#4: Complimenting Me on Easily Accomplished Tasks

Nearly every expat could share my pain for this unfortunately reoccurring scenario, “Wow! You’re so good with chopsticks!”

Yes, I’m also very good at brushing my teeth but let’s not comment on it, please and thanks.

Using chopsticks is not rocket science. Also, neither is saying “Arigatou (thanks)” or “Dooitashimashite (You’re welcome).” That doesn’t make me, “So good at Japanese!” that makes me able to look up a video on YouTube. Seriously, I don’t need to be encouraged like a five year old.

When you see me defend the school from ninjas, feel free to compliment until you lack air. Until then, I’m good.

#3: Pretending I’m Not There

Sometimes the previously mentioned lunch scenario gets worse, with people talking about me and what I’m doing right in front of me like I don’t exist. It makes my eye twitch.

#2: Running Away from Me

I’ve had this happen to me usually around where I live. I walk into a store and the sales ladies get nervous and suddenly disappear. I have to end up tracking someone down to ask them a simple question and they look so terrified when I do.

I’m not going to eat you, you daft woman! I just need this in a different size!

#1: Telling Me I Shouldn’t Live In Japan

I get so many people asking me if racism exists in Japan. The answer to that in a simple way is yes, because racism exists literally everywhere, all over the planet. Every single country is dealing with prejudice issues in some way. The more complicated answer is that the racism here in Japan is often under reported, discussed, and usually just gets avoided as an issue altogether.

There are subtle racist problems that I’ve dealt with here and there, but everything I’ve been through doesn’t compare to friends of mine. They’ve been harassed by the police, spat on, and one man I knew in Tokyo did in fact get punched in the face because he “looked too black” at a club.

My main racist issue that’s very overt and hurtful is when a Japanese person tells me, “Oh, you can’t live in Japan forever.” or “If you live in Japan, you won’t be happy. Go back to America.”

Yes, actually, I could live in Japan if I wanted to and I do think that I’d be very happy living in Japan. It’s not a perfect country, but it’s full of cultural wonders that I deeply love. The insinuation that because I am from another country that I can’t survive or be happy here is founded on some inane principle that only people born in Japan can truly accomplish these things. When I hear stuff like that I feel unwanted, like everyone is just putting up with me until I may or may not go.

It pisses me off, because I dreamed for half of my life of coming to Japan. I didn’t come here to get told to, “Go home because you make me uncomfortable.” Guess what? Too bad. I came here legally on a work visa. I pay bills. I took the Japanese drivers test to get a license. I am living here, obeying the laws, and bending over backwards in many ways to behave in a socially acceptable manners when I don’t know all of the unspoken social rules. If you don’t like it, too bad, I’m here to stay until I damn well feel like leaving.

Now, all ten of these irritants are events that happen every so often, but I can live with them. I do still love Japan and I want to keep working towards being the best ALT I can be while I live here. However, I think it’s important to discuss the problems that exist in living in another country, because it’s not as easy as one would think. Most days I have the time of my life, but there are some moments I get frustrated. Today I got one of those moments.

And now that I’m done venting, I shall return to grading papers with Pokemon stamps, because I don’t know the meaning of growing up.