27 November 2010

Knowing each other

This is a phrase that seems to be used by JTEs and in lesson plans. Initially it really grated on me, but I've since come to like it. It's the goal afterall.

I was advised early on that really getting to know Japanese people can prove difficult on JET, especially (obviously) if you don't speak Japanese. On my second day in Fujieda I was lucky enough to visit my night school teacher's house for dinner with my predecessor. It was a sort of goodbye to her, hello to me thing. My etiquette wasn't (and still isn't) up to much! I didn't realise that we'd be going to his house and not a restaurant so I didn't bring omiyage! Having just skimmed though the 'useful phrases' we were given at Tokyo Orientation, I couldn't even remember what you're supposed to say when you enter someone's house. It means something like 'sorry for the intrusion', but the Japanese still escapes me!

It was a great experience...seeing the inside of an actual Japanese house, sitting on the floor (because I don't in my apartment), being given lots of random foods to try, being asked random questions about Ireland and asking them about Japan. Afterwards my pred told me that visiting a Japanese house is a rare experience. She said that people here tend to be too reserved and private to invite you over. This explains the reverence JETS seem to have for the humble homestay. A while back, there was a festival in a small Shizuokian town with homestays available. You had to apply way in advance and there was a huge rush. Unfortunately I didn't hear about it until the places were all gone.

Of course I was lucky enough to do a homestay at the Hanagasa Dancing parade festival in Ito...though we didn't actually stay with the family there but in a separate apartment. It was very western, with beds, a table and chairs, and continental breakfast. Recently, I also got the chance to stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn in Nagoya. I slept on a futon there, which is still a novelty for me because I have a bed in my apartment. It was really comfortable! There was also an sento..which I didn't actually use, and slippers to wear around the house, so to speak.

But at last I have found the perfectest opportunity to interact with Japanese people! I got chatting to a really cool JTE who I don't actually teach with. While other teachers are year heads or responsible for a club activity, she's in charge of delivering the school's PET bottles to the recycling factory in Shimada. I offered to help her one time and on the drive she told me about the Time Circle. A group of JTEs from various schools, plus one American ALT meet on Saturdays to read Time magazine. They take turns reading the article (summarize it in Japanese...which I have tended to zone out during) and then discuss it. It sounded pure class to me. Free readsies of Time! Meeting English-speaking Japanese people! Intellectual discussion!

I attended for the first time two weeks ago. I didn't realise that we'd be going to someone's house and not some sort of community centre so I didn't bring omiyage!(..sensing a pattern?) Yet again I failed to recall 'sorry for intruding' in Japanese so I just bowed a lot and said 'DOZO yoroshiku onegaishimasu' (the politest nice to meet you phrase). And there I was, seated in the quaintest little living room, being quizzed about my country again. The man whose house it was introduced himself as Masahiro and then told me to call him 'Masa', because he knew that Japanese names are difficult...after which I knew with certainty that I would remember his whole name. There were cushions and doilies everywhere, kawaii! There was even a huge doily/lace thing covering the piano. Every seat had one of those thin tie-on cushions, including those on the already-comfortable couch.

The Time Circle participants drifted in one by one and we began reading an article about youth movements in Burma. Masahiro has a slow, measured way of speaking. I could listen to him for a long time. Unlike your stereotypical older Irish person, he seems to be fairly liberal and open, as well as having a lot of interesting stories. Our conversation about religion concluded with the realisation that we were all non-practicing Catholics and religious tolerance is cool. Anyway, we read sections of the article in turns and I could only feel admiration for these Japanese teachers who were taking on the daunting task of untangling and interpreting the complicated grammar and vocabulary of Time writer in order to discuss world events in Eigo. It's difficult to appreciate how varied and illogical our sentence structures can be until you're trying to explain one to an obviously intelligent and yet lost Sempai. Thankfully, the American ALT was there too!

The circle quickly descended into general conversation about Ireland, America and Japan. Let's just say I heard enough ninja vs mukade stories to make me very fearful of living in Japan during the summer! In the end I was invited to the group's 'Potluck party', maybe a standard term in the States but I was like huh?...when they explained, we go to someone's house and everybody brings food, I was like, aha!
That happened tonight. Funtimes!

23 November 2010

My thing about Buddhas

I have long been wholly ignorant about Japanese religion. With a vague sense of the coexistence of Buddhism and Shinto I've visited shrines and struggled to identify them as one or the other. Yet I really love visiting shrines! There's a peace and acceptance there that lack of knowledge hasn't prevented me from experiencing.

Since I've been in Japan, some Japanese and non-Japanese friends have helped me to untangle the mass of rituals and symbols around me...


-Statues of Buddha (seems like it should be obvious, but it wasn't!)

-Incense and oranges...this is what gets offered instead of cash

-Omikuji...meaning 'sacred lottery', you pay for a random slip of paper with a fortune on it. If it's good you can keep it for luck or tie it to pine tree or a wall of metal wires in the shrine grounds. If it's bad, you always tie it up in the shrine. A possible reason for the custom is a pun on the Japanese word 'matsu' which means 'pine tree' and 'to wait'.


-Purification...washing your hands and mouth before entering temples. There's a specific procedure you're supposed to follow. At the basin you hold the ladle in your right hand, pouring water on your left, then vice verse. Finally you pour water into one hand and wash your mouth with it.

-red gates...translated 'bird perch',they mark the passage from the profane to the sacred at the entrance to the shrine. Some shrines have multiple ones, apparently designating increasing levels of holiness. I'm not so sure how this works at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with it's millions of gates ascending the hill, but it sure is beautiful:

-Paper streamers...called 'shide', they are zigzagged and often found hanging in the shrines.

-Clapping, bowing, throwing money...in the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo there were English instructions on how to donate money. Standing in the main shrine building, in front of a large wooden box which is covered on top by rectangular wooden bars, you clap to announce your presence to the kami, throw your money into the box (it often bounces before falling though), clap again and bow.

-Omikuji...again! It's a Japanese thing!

-Ema...these are small wooden plaques on which you write a prayer or wish. You buy them in the shrine and leave them hanging there for the kami (Shinto gods/spirits) to receive

Despite these clarifications, it's also become clear to me that religions in Japan are seriously intermingled and interrelated. Many Japanese people don't identify with any particular religion but participate in rituals associated with multiple ones. As one JTE of mine paraphrased, 'Many Japanese are brought to Shinto temples as children, have Christian white weddings, and then Buddhist funerals'.

My confusion about Japanese shrines was compounded when I noticed that some...in fact many, shrines exhibit a range of features from both lists. It seems that a Buddhist shrine was often built alongside a Shinto one and they later amalgamated! This is a serious culture shock...

I've been asked why there was so much fighting over difference of religion in Ireland...and failed to adequately explain the mess of religious-political alignment very well. I've wondered about the divisive motives of Christian leaders back home who criticise worshippers for attending a Protestant Church when the usually attend a Catholic one. Isn't religion supposed to be about love and acceptance? It looks to me like religious freedom can be about more than freely choosing one religion to be restricted by.

Considering that 84% of Japanese people claim to have no personal religion, while a similar percentage of Irish people call themselves Catholic, I find it surprising that people in Japan don't vilify one another on the basis of religion, shrines here aren't deserted and there's a much greater sense of spirituality there than you find at Sunday mass.

10 November 2010

Still the scariest thing in Japan

You'd think that after 3 months in Japan my arachnophobia would be improving. After all, I'm pretty sure that therapists treat arachnophobics by exposing them to spiders, after which their fear gradually subsides. Given that I've got the exposure part down (well, I have seen 3 massive spiders here so far), I figure I should give talking, the other aspect of spider-therapy, a try. That way maybe some day I'll be able to sleep soundly at night.

This morning as I was heading into the library building at school, I spotted massive spider number 3 making it's way in ahead of me. It was not a huntsman as far as I could tell. I mean to say that it didn't walk sideways but forwards. That said, it was bigger than any other breed of Japanese spider is supposed to be so maybe it was a huntsman...It crawled into the librarian's office where they key for the audio-visual room (where I teach) is kept, and hid behind a stack of newspapers. I pointed it out to my JTE, who didn't look too worried.

Later that day...I had to go back into the room 5 more times to take and return the key between classes! Each time I was frantically scanning the walls/floor/ceiling and preparing myself to be lept upon by the hideous beast. At one point I bumped into the innocent librarian, whom I probably shouldn't have told about the spider. (But I had to warn her!) In fact I didn't tell her, I mimed it and she understood fairly well. I even learnt the Japanese word for spider, kumo. So now I know what to yell when one accosts me suddenly.

In any case I spend the rest of the day in turmoil. If there's one there, there could be others around the school! Is there one under my desk? Hidden under the A4 paper in the photocopying room? Lurking in the microwave?..I swear I opened it so cautiously when I was heating up my lunch.

All this living in terror got me thinking..is arachnophobia irrational? After all, I've had people laugh at me for it in the past.

In fact the accusation of irrational fear begins with the assumption that I belive spiders to be dangerous and so I'm afraid of them. Spiders are mostly not dangerous and so I am irrational. Actually, I know that most spiders are pretty harmless. Particularly in Ireland, where no spider is even big enough to hurt a fly..kind of.
Even though I know that spiders can't hurt me, I still admitt to having the fight-or-flight response. I definately have one of these (hence the butchering..and the swearing never to shower again when I saw Japanese spider number 2 in my bathroom). According to Wikipedia, many sufferers are aware that they are not in danger, but their body thinks they are..hence the panic.

The second wiff of irrationality comes from one of my childhood experiences involving spiders. Apparently, phobias are often a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was 8...I used to freakin' love spiders. I collected them in jars as a pastime. Then one day, as I was releasing a particularly lovely one onto a picnic table, I dropped the jar on top of it! The beautiful roundy ball on it's back got all smushed and I felt SO bad, like SO, SO bad. It was such a tragic climax to my day of spider-hunting. After all, hadn't I been trying to set it free at the time?

The thing is...I wasn't traumatised. I wasn't afraid at any point. If anything I should be afraid of accidentally killing spiders...but man am I not. In fact, if they so much as come inside my apartment I happily butcher them.

Ok, so maybe I am arachnophobic, but maybe it's not my fault...

There are some evolutionary psycologists who claim that arachnophobia may be a natural reaction to the existence of poisonous spiders. Our ancestors who were afraid of them avoided them, and so less of them got spider bites, more of them survived...and here I am today. This theory is kind of discredited though, seeing as people tend to be less afraid of more dangerous insects like wasps. People are disproportionately afraid of spiders..and don't I know it.

...but maybe it's just embedded in popular culture. Look at Miss Muffet! And indeed it turns out that in some countries people eat spiders and they're not afraid of them there.

Most promisingly...studies with crickets have shown that arachnophobia may develop before birth! Makes sense...my birthday is in November, so I was fetal during summer, the most spidery season on the year. I also know that my mother travelled to Greece when she was pregnant with me...maybe she saw a really big spider there, and her terror travelled down the umbilical cord and embedded itself in my unconscious..that could explain it all.

05 November 2010

"Suntan" and the Japanese Healthcare System

Just over a month ago, I sustained some pretty bad sunburn while surfing (aka lying like a beached whale on my surfboard and plunging headfirst into the water each time I tried to stand up) at Shizunami beach. This is the story of the extremely unpleasant week following..

On the Saturday itself we didn't wear wetsuits because the weather was warm..and who would have known that that came with its own perils? I usually make a habit of lathering myself with sun cream if it's not cloudy out and that fateful day was no exception. My face, arms and neck were completely covered. Of course, I neglected to put any on my legs because I was thinking...sure my legs will be underwater right? Wrong...my legs were on the surfboard. I practically sunbathed on my stomach for 5 hours with no sun cream, and 3 more hours with it after some (wonderful, wonderful) person pointed out that the back of my legs looked sort of red..I guess it could have been even worse!

On the way home I knew that something was up..I had extreme shivers and started feeling sick. At home I covered my legs in after sun and went to bed early. I knew that it was bad sunburn, but I was hoping that it wasn't seriously bad. I'd seen third degree burns from the sun before, with blisters and bandages, so since I couldn't see any blisters I was hoping that it'd be alright.

I woke up, sometime between 12 and 1 and felt super warm and dehydrated. When I went to the kitchen to get a drink the nausea started, awful, head-swimming debilitation. With a lot of difficulty I walked back to my room to get my phone to call for help before I blacked out. I was so uncoordinated that I actually stumbled and smacked my head off my bedside locker. It was like being really, really drunk!

Unsure of who to call I started with my supervisor, whom I felt terrible for waking up! As I lay on my bed the darkness encroaching on the sides of my vision retreated a little so we decided that I didn't need to be taken to the hospital immediately. (Even if I did...how scary would that have been, in an ambulance unable to communicate with the paramedics?) After I hung up, the nausea got worse again so I called my JET neighbour who totally saved the day. Having reassured my parents on the phone, she googled sun stroke and made me an ice-bath. It was a fully blown battle of wills to get me into the bath, but my legs were burning and I was still really sick and confused so I did it.

The recovery was incredibly fast! I was shivering and shaking all over, but suddenly coherent again. That cold water stayed in my bath for the next 48 hours and I got back into it whenever my legs felt too hot. In the meantime, I began sleeping in my aircon room and drinking lots of water. Sunstroke crisis averted!

At school, most of the teachers were pretty amused by my 'suntan', which meant that I couldn't walk properly (the skin at the back of one of my knees had melted together). I've since come to the conclusion that Japanese people very rarely get sunburned, because few of them seemed to have the slightest idea what I meant by the word. They kept referring back to it as bad 'suntan'. At one point, a teacher confided in me that I should look after myself very well because suntan could in fact be like a real burn...at which point I had to stop myself from bursting in to song, someone understood!

Despite their difficulty in understanding my condition, the teachers were amazingly kind and helpful to me during that week and the next. Initially I thought I didn't need a doctor, but having spoken to a VHI nurse in Ireland on the phone, I decided that I did. At this point I'd developed a few blisters on the back of my legs, they were still burning all of the time and it was pretty much impossible to lie down, sit or walk normally. So that Thursday, 5 days after surfing, I applied for my nenkyu, recruited my translator, and prepared for my first encounter with the Japanese Health System.

Two hours later, we were still cuing at the dermatologist. I learnt that there are no G.P.s in Japan. People go straight to specialists. Luckily, it was pretty obvious which one I required, and my teachers were able to recommend a good, nearby one. Having filled out a form (surprise!), we joined the long cue in the waiting room. The receptionists wore surgical masks and each time the door to the doctor's room opened, I could see two nurses with masks, hospital style pull-around curtains and a doctor with (I'm pretty sure) surgical scrubs on. It was pretty damn intimidating!

When my turn finally came, I was probably relieved and terrified in equal measure. In the room I had to take off my trousers (funtimes, my JTE translator was male) and
lie on their table thing. The worst part was not being able to see what they were doing behind me. At first, there were 4 people crowding around, staring at my legs. Then, the nurses were running all over the place applying stuff with cotton buds, prodding and poking etc. At one point, I glanced behind me to see one advancing with a scissors...I was like WTF? No way...

Unfortunately, I had precious little say over what happened. The JTE seemed to translate only a small portion of what was said and the doctor didn't seem happy with my asking questions. Having treated the burn in various mysterious ways, he gave me stuff to put on it and told me to return the next day. He also refused to prescribe aspirin for me because, as he expertly derived from my medical form, aspirin gave me asthma. When I tried to protest we were ushered out of the room...NEXT!

I had to go back twice more, though it would have been more times had I not headed off to Tokyo that weekend and been more available. Instead they weighed me down with medical supplies and instructed me to change the bandages myself twice daily. This turned out to be not only complicated, but pretty painful since the nurses stuck the surgical tape on skin that ripped away when I removed it, ouch/itai!

Fortunately, whatever the dermatologist did worked, because the burn improved, I stopped developing blisters and the skin at the back of my knee magically unstuck itself so that I could walk again. Walking when you haven't been able to for even a short period of time is the most amazing feeling!

The 'suntan' episode was probably my worst JET experience so far, but I survived thanks to quick-thinking friends and wonderful Japanese teachers. Let's just say that I don't care to require the services of the Japanese Healthcare System again any time soon...and always. remember. to wear sun screen.

03 November 2010

Teaching Debating

As JET Programme participants, we're employed to teach oral English. For many JETs this seems to involve conducting lessons on a number of key topics: food, hobbies, careers etc. They teach vocabulary and get the students to practice using it in a real situation, like ordering food at a restaurant. As it happens though, I don't do that at all. I mostly teach debating.

This is only possible because of the really high level of my students..they are absolute ledges all of them! Thus it would be pretty pointless conducting lessons on key topics because they already know all the vocab and probably more about English grammar than I do! My JTEs never asked me to use a book for teaching or to follow any set curriculum. I was left with the opportunity to teach whatever I wanted..so I decided it was best to play to my strengths. Some super-insightful JTEs even said that they wanted to try debating, talk about being in the right school at the right time!

There are several reasons why teaching debating works..it involves speaking English of course, English which can be as complicated or as simple as the students want. Often they surprise me by coming out with vocabulary that I had no idea they knew. For example, there's a debating warm-up game that we play with first (15-16) and second (16-17) years. We clear away the desks and designate sides of the room as agree and disagree. Then I read out sentences and they move to express their opinion. Finally, we ask some students why they agree or disagree. One sentence I use is 'Students should not wear school uniforms'. Typically, Japanese students disagree with this. First years say things like: It is convenient or It costs less money. Second years use more complicated English: It teaches us group identity. The advantage is that the students we call on can use whatever English they have to answer.

The second reason why debating works, is that it gently encourages students to act as individuals. During the above game, the same class who had collectively chosen to disagree with the sentence about uniforms, were suddenly split down the middle when I read 'The U.S. military should leave Okinawa'. Friends had heated discussions before parting ways in the middle of the room...a deprival of group identity and participation in the culture of the English-speaking world, individuality! The first kind of debating we taught was Impromptu. We graded the speeches on a number of criteria, one of which was 'expression of opinion'. For every point they made in a speech they had to give a reason, no blindly agreeing with popular opinion because it's popular..what do YOU think?

The final advantage of debating as I see it, is that it guides students toward critical thinking. Ok, so maybe it's time I took off my college hat..but I honestly think that it's a pretty crucial life-skill and people should be introduced to it as early as possible. After Impromptu, the students graduate to British Parliamentary Debating. This is the point at which I struggle to explain terms like principle analysis and model definition to the JTE...and that's before the lesson even begins! In the end, the students incredible English has saved the day thus-far. They knew the word 'abstract', which helped me cut some dark, translation-filled corners. Then came the gasps of 'Eeeehhhhhh' when I revealed that we'd need to ask WHY? at least 3 times for each point in BP. Lights, camera, critical thinking.

Maybe it should worry me that only one out of three 'debating rocks' points mention English, but it doesn't! The students get their English practice in. Seeing as I'm under-qualified to improve their language skills, I might as well improve their communication. After all, what's the point of speaking English if you can't use it to engage in real discussion?