Tag Archives: teaching

Obon festivities

Often in class I find I am learning as much as the students.  While they pick up the essentials of English grammar and usage, along with certain vignettes about British life, I am gaining too.  Not merely an insight into Japan and its culture but also an alternative perspective on what it is to be human spinning around on this big rock we call home.  Aside from all the surface differences, I am realising that people are people, with more in common than not.

This week I was given an insight into the Obon holiday.  If I had thought about it at all it was as a nice long break in the middle of Japan’s hottest season, a chance to head home, cool my blood down a few degrees and catch up with much-missed friends and family.  To sleep in my old bed under my mother’s roof again, stuff myself with sausages, roast potatoes and maybe a few Jaffa Cakes, luxuriate in the first two-week holiday since the Christmas break and tell my tales over pub tables, was my plan.

A lot of people think that Oban is just an excuse for a holiday, a chance to go overseas.  They are forgetting what it means

I was told.  And I thought, how comforting.  I am sure a lot of regular church attenders would say the same about Christmas and how it has become an excuse for too much food, bad TV and winter sun.  Every year the same predictable whines from certain quarters about people losing their connection to the true spirit of the season in favour of a rampant bout of consumerism.  Remember your grandparents being happy with a tangerine and a handful of sweets for their present and feel suitably chagrined.

So, to make up for my ignorance, here is what I learnt about the real meaning of Obon.  It is a three-day holiday when ancestors who have departed return to earth from heaven for a visit.  Families gather, food is prepared and tombs are attended to.  Stories are told about the ones who have gone.  On the last day, before the ancestors must leave for heaven again, there are parties and parades, with fireworks and fires to light their way back.  It sounded lovely and again I felt comforted that, perhaps instinctively, I had stumbled into doing the right thing by deciding to visit my ancestral home during the holiday.

Then I learned something else.  If the relative has died within the last year, pictures of Japan’s scenery are prepared for them, alongside the food.  Japanese people love nature, adore their nation’s mountains and forests, and the feeling is that maybe the ancestors – although they have been in heaven – will be missing what they had to leave behind.  So they get pictures instead, to remind them of what they used to experience when they were living.

The picture an ancestor of Kyoto would wish to see?

And then I thought of all the people who have left Japan this year, many of whom will be forever without a tomb.  Those living in evacuation centres who may wonder if their ancestors will find them now that the family home has been destroyed.  The bereaved for whom giving their relatives’ spirits a happy send off at the end of the holiday might be too much to ask, their pain too raw so soon after the shock of the initial departure.  I wondered if this year’s Obon will be a comfort to them or not.

Then I heard about an appeal that went out across Japan this week (site in Japanese) for donations of black clothing so that people could be suitably attired for a remembrance event.  I could only find news reports in Japanese, but found this English translation here):

Our team have visited tohoku areas and talked with local people who have told us that they urgently need these clothes as there is a ceremony on 18th June 100days after the disaster 震災100日め慰霊祭 and we would like to deliver as many items as possible by that date

I realised that for many, the formalities of mourning, the familiar rites and prayers being performed as close to ‘normally’ as the circumstances can allow for, will provide comfort.  They meet a psychological need as important as the more immediate and sometimes more easily addressed physical ones now facing the people of Tohoku.  I imagine that it would be tempting to tone down the festivities this year out of respect but I hope that they can be allowed to run to their fullest course.  I also hope that they can provide relief to those who need it most.

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Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in

Surprised to realise the other day that it has been ages since I have written for ten minutes hate about music.  Strange, as I have a head full of it most days, waking from dreams with songs playing in my thoughts, wandering to work with headphones blaring, sharing recommendations with friends, my mood altering from jubilation to introspection depending on the whims of my mp3 player’s shuffle function.

I was in one of the more thoughtful frames of mind at the weekend when this line from the Modest Mouse song, ‘Blame it on the Tetons’, caught my ear:

Language is the liquid

That we’re all dissolved in

Great for solving problems

After it creates a  problem

As a writer and teacher, someone who grapples with words for a living, you might expect a certain ability with them.  I admit I can do ok on occasion.  But for every time that happens, as often are the times when words go astray, don’t convey what I mean them to, or can’t travel far enough, fast enough, to soothe someone dear’s pain.

For all those times, I am glad there is music:

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The question of Murakami

I can do tact and diplomacy when they are required, so a couple of months after arriving in Japan, when it dawned on me that even those students who were happy to talk about books and authors were going lukewarm on the topic when Murakami’s name came up, I stopped mentioning him at all.  I was puzzled though.  So when I got to know a student with some literary aspirations a little better, I asked him what the deal was.

Of course, he’s very popular in the West

the student told me, in the same tone of voice you would reserve for a relative committed to a institution after an unfortunate incident likely to bring shame on the whole family if too widely discussed.  And you thought Britain did ‘build them up, tear them down’ well!

Haruki Murakami, thanks to some excellent translations that I have heard are very accurate from someone lucky enough to be able to read them in both languages, is indeed popular in the West.  He has won many prizes and rightly been acclaimed as one of the greats.  But he was also once so popular in Japan that, after Norwegian Wood was published in 1987 and sold millions of copies, he left the country and spent most of the next decade abroad trying to escape the weight of notoriety.  Perhaps it is that abandonment that people find so hard to forgive.

Delicately, I broached the subject again with another student, a serene lady in her early 40s who might have been one of those teenagers buying the million copies of Norwegian Wood. She spoke carefully.

Maybe the problem is that Westerners come to Japan and believe it is really like that.  You think that what he writes is real

I am not so sure.  I would be lying if I said I hadn’t fallen for his off-beat perspectives on life, yet I think what makes Murakami’s books so special is that they contain just enough reality to convince.  Everyone has probably met a character like Toru Okada from The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, passive in the face of his lost job, lost cat and eventually even his lost wife.  The boredom of a suburban summer captured in short story The Last Lawn of the Afternoon, from The Elephant Vanishes, isn’t unique to Japan.  Then, having spent some time here, it is easy to imagine missing the last train and deciding to spend the early hours reading in Denny’s like Mari in After Dark, speculating on the other people passing by.

But I wasn’t expecting to find wells in back gardens containing secret tunnels that lead to the past, or a world that exists in the space between reality and dream, such as the one where Mari’s sister has been sleeping for a year.  I knew it would be fairly unlikely I would stumble into any situations like those encountered by the hero of Kafka on the Shore, a book so baffling and other-worldly that even its author can only offer this advice to readers looking for answers:

the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it, but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus.

Sharper focus, maybe, but still recognisably unreal, even if you have never visited Japan.  Instead Murakami’s books create a world that, as in a dream, manages to remain rooted in what’s real, while being not very real at all.  And I know this, just as I know that Midori and Watanabe from Norwegian Wood – arguably the author’s most realistic novel – aren’t out there somewhere, arguing and laughing and cooking and loving each other, maybe taking a break from their wandering around the city to relax in the park on a Sunday afternoon.

Definitely not.

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Colder than water

I arrived in Japan with so little experience of teaching children that I sometimes wonder if they can tell that I am learning almost as much in class as they are.  Many of my students are 11 and 12 years old and, while it may be a cliché, I have found them to be by turns funny, rude, cheeky and occasionally aggravating.  They are never dull.  Full of curiosity, each with their own obsessions – from collecting animation cards to drawing comics, as well as the ubiquitous baseball and football – it is mostly a pleasure to be around them.

In recent weeks, our experience of aftershocks in class has made me realise how well they are coping with everything.  It must be especially difficult to be in that ‘tween’ age group, expected to be a little bit braver than younger siblings, but still enough of a kid to worry about the concern shown on the faces of previously dependable parents and teachers.  If they are, they seem to be containing it well.  The games are just as boisterous, the groans for homework still loud and the laughter at sensei when she does some clowning around remains genuine enough to be one of the perks of my day.

This, however, is the reaction of kids safely away from the centres of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami.  In Miyagi, one school gathered together to mourn the deaths of 70 percent of their classmates on the forty-ninth day since the disaster, a day when Buddhists believe the soul leaves this world.  Cleaning and rebuilding the school in the coming months may be achievable, but comfort for the survivors when the empty desks and chairs can never be filled will be more elusive.

14,564 is the number of recorded deaths to date from the Tohoku earthquake, with another 11,356 missing and perhaps never to be found, despite huge efforts.  As numbers they are difficult to process, it is a struggle to imagine what so many people would look like if they were standing all in one place, then suddenly gone.  Such numbers daze us, causing a numbness that can protect from the pain of a tragedy, but also leave us inured to the suffering of individuals.

So to break through that numb feeling, read an account by 12 year-old Yuta Hakoishi from Iwate of his feelings following the death of his father.  In writing it, he displays maturity and courage that I might assume were beyond his years, had it not been for the members of his peer group that I have encountered recently:

When I touched my father’s face it was colder than water. In my mind I kept thinking, ‘Why did you go back?’ Then I kept telling myself, ‘What good is it for me to worry?’ but the more I said it, the more tears welled up in my eyes.

I saw the titanium accessory that my father had worn, a good-luck ankle charm that he bought in Tokyo, and his wedding ring and mobile phone. What surprised me was that his watch was still working. When my father died and even when he was swallowed by the tsunami, it kept ticking. My dad’s watch is now mine. I don’t think I’ll ever lose it my whole life.

Yuta Hakoishi promised his father as he prayed at his funeral that the family would do their best to carry on.  I believe that we must do everything within our power to help him keep that promise.  That may be by making a donation to one of the appeals or by donating time as a volunteer.  Please do all that you can.  Let’s show Yuta and all the bereaved children of Tohoku that they do not have to bear their grief alone.  Let’s help them to recover, so that they can return to the same captivations that they shared with other young people before the waves came.

Photo from Kyodo, via The Mainichi Daily News

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Cause: earthquake

Teacher, where were you… when big earthquake…?

In case I’m not sure what they mean, the student helpfully makes a motion to demonstrate the shaking with their hands at this point in the question.  I was only halfway through my first week back at work when I began to run out of new ways to tell the same stories.  Friday 11 March was like a terrible film on almost constant loop in my head.

The students are lucky, in a way, because they only have to tell theirs once.  Japanese stoicism being what it is, I suppose this might be their only opportunity to speak out loud and I don’t begrudge them taking it at all.  I reflect that I am also in quite a privileged position, being able to listen to voices that aren’t often heard by gaijin.  Students have voiced criticisms to me that I doubt they would tell a spouse or a parent if the normal rules hadn’t been suspended for a short time by the crisis.

They tell me of having to sleep in the office, on a piece of cardboard or in a family restaurant because of suspended trains.  Of taking in family members from the North who have left everything behind.  Of their disbelief at US news outlets thinking Sendai is located in Kyushu in the West.  Or they speak of how business is being disrupted, the usual routine thrown into disarray by colleagues relocating, shipments being delayed and a thousand other factors.  Everyone is busy, working hard, worrying about the future and where it might lead.

Japan feels alone…

…one student tells me, fearful that tourists – rare even in better times due to the yen’s strength – will no longer want to come because of the radiation.  So I mention that I have family about to arrive and they are so happy to hear the news, we talk of places my relatives should visit while they are here and it is a relief to turn to a less fraught topic of conversation for a short while.  It seems such a small crumb of comfort to be able to offer when what is needed is a feast.

Picture from the Yamanote line, Saturday 12 March

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Rough day

Yesterday was tough.  The first full day back to work since the earthquake was always going to be something of a shock to the system and naturally there was only one main theme of conversation for the adult students.  Where were you, what did you see and exactly how long did it take you to get home?

There was also a genuine curiosity as to how a real live foreigner is reacting to the crisis.  Maybe they have read about the ‘flyjin‘ and are surprised to see that some of us have stayed, but there was also genuine concern for my safety, some checking that I knew what to do during a quake and enquiries as to how my family felt about me still being here.

It felt slightly strange to be providing reassurance that I felt safe, knew that I should open a door and duck under a table, that I had huge faith in Japanese engineering and building technology after seeing how little damage there had been in central Tokyo.  I am not entirely sure if I was trying to comfort those listening or myself.  As students told me that they jumped every time they heard a strange noise in the office, that they were buying bottled water as a precaution for their daughters or that a 30-minute commute home had taken seven hours to complete, I wondered whether we would ever be able to return to ‘normal’.

I also wondered what this was accomplishing, feeling equally powerless to assist in the face of such devastation or a student’s sudden tears.  So I came home, opened a bottle of wine, heard from some amazing people on Twitter and then regained a sense of perspective.  I didn’t have a tough day at work.  It was perhaps a little rougher than usual, but not in any way tough.  If you want to see some people who had a tough day at work yesterday, click here.

The Fukushima 50 are risking everything to keep everyone in Japan safe.  So next time I feel like having a whinge, I will be thinking of everything they are going through and lifting my chin a little higher.

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Are you ok?

So how are you?  Are you doing ok?  How is everything there?  What’s happening?  You alright?

These and other variations on the same theme have been pinging around the world into the inboxes and ears of many residents of Japan since the earthquake of 11 March.  There is no easy way to answer such questions, it seems, because every time I try I come up with something different.

Just as I wrote those words, the earthquake alarms that many people have on their mobile phones sounded, before my table in the cafe shook lazily, almost soothingly, as if a giant foot was somewhere trying to rock a cradle holding Japan to send us all to sleep.  It only went on for a couple of seconds, so can’t have been very big or must have been located far away.  Once I was sure that my cup of tea wasn’t going to spill I returned to my writing.

Such complacency must seem incredible to Westerners, faced with images of the devastation in the North and worrying about us here in Tokyo.  If I stop to think I am also incredulous at how quickly I have become used to aftershocks and alarms, how swiftly I can now calculate levels of immediate danger and decide if they are worth getting out of my chair for.  Similarly, it feels as if we have all become armchair experts on all things nuclear, discussing levels of radiation exposure,  possible side-effects of iodine tablets and the relative impacts of micro- and milli-sieverts in the same way that we once engaged in more idle chatter.

Yet, in spite of the essential rescue efforts still going on in the stricken areas, continuing attempts to save the power plant from meltdown and the reintroduced programme of rolling blackouts, life is returning to a semblance of normality in the capital.  People are commuting and shopping and eating and drinking, as they were before.  I will be back at work later on today and the return to the familiar routine is soothing to the nerves, if likely to prove detrimental to the writing schedule.

The decision to stay in Japan and in Tokyo was the right one for me, I feel sure.  However, that should not be taken as criticism of anyone who made an alternative choice.  We all had to make a decision we were comfortable with, in the face of rapidly altering facts and opinions from an array of experts located around the globe.  We all had different factors to consider and it would have tested the judgment of Solomon at times to know which were the deciders.  Only someone who was here would know the agony of that choice, which is why I am saddened this morning to read this from the Japan Times:

I have seen some nasty stuff written by some (foreigners) who stayed about those (foreigners) who have left

Shame on anyone engaging in such nastiness.  Was it worth it to move a family out of possible harm’s way, to head home to give loved ones a hug or simply to sleep one night in a bed that was unlikely to be rocked by that giant’s foot?  Of course, I recognise the pull of such concerns as I was almost swayed by them myself.  Although in the end other factors won out for me, I don’t have it in me to condemn anyone who chose to answer the question ‘are you ok?’ in person instead of via email, Skype or status update.

But many people in this fantastic country that I am lucky enough to call home are unable to answer that question positively and will not be in a position to do so for a very long time.  Please send as much help as you can, the British Red Cross appeal or Second Harvest Japan are both doing sterling work.  My answer to your question?  Yes, yes I am and thank you so much for asking.

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