Thursday, December 16, 2010

All I want for Christmas is better music

I really enjoy having my kids sing English songs. I think it’s a great learning opportunity and a lot more fun than a lot of other activities we do in class. Also, its living language, which means that it isn’t always 100% correct English, but it IS how people actually use the language. And that’s incredibly important for the students to experience.

So when Christmas time rolls around you’d think I would be excited. There are so many great Christmas songs! Unfortunately three songs here seem to have a monopoly on English class singing. One of them is "All I Want for Christmas is You" by Mariah Carey, and I don’t mind that one so much. It isn’t a bad song and has a cute message. It isn’t exactly what I would call a classic or traditional Christmas song, but it has a good beat and it’s fun to sing. The other two however I really don’t like. Let’s break them down and see why, shall we?

Happy Xmas (War is Over)
By John Lennon and Yoko Ono

I HATE this song. This is not a song I want to hear at Christmas time. I’m not going to go through every line, just the ones that really bother me and make me hate this song. Also, I refuse to type out Xmas like it says in the lyrics because that’s not how you say Christmas.

The song doesn’t waste any time in sinking into a melancholy.
And so this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Well… not much I guess. I mean my life is a rather small one and I haven’t really done anything to alter the face of the world this year. I’m sure I did a few things for people, but is that enough? Have a wasted this past year and am I doomed to waste the next one as well? Wow, I’m really feeling in the Christmas spirit now.

And so this is Christmas
I hope you had fun
No you don’t. Your tone suggests that you’re being incredibly sarcastic and implying that I better have had fun with my wasted life because it didn’t do any good. This is not a wish of goodwill, it’s a taunt.

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For the rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
Well that started out okay. I thought we were going for the message that this is Christmas for everyone and that it doesn’t matter if your strong or weak or rich or poor, it’s still Christmas. But then we throw out that next line, which seems to be implying that the world is wrong for having weak and strong ones and poor and rich ones. How does that work? Should we all be rich and strong? I mean, that’s a nice thought, but it can’t work that way. Should we all be of average strength and moderate income?

But next comes the biggest reason I hate singing this song here in Japan.
And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For the yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fight
He did not just say that! Black and white are terms that we use to indentify ourselves by race, this is true, but yellow and red are RACIAL SLURS! When my teacher was going over the lyrics of this song with the kids I just had to stand there uncomfortably while he informed them that red people were Native Americans and yellow people were Asians. One of my students looked down at her skin and said rather distraughtly, “I’m not yellow.” Awk-ward!

And so this is Christmas
And what have you done?
I’ve written a self righteous Christmas song!

The final nail in the coffin for me is the background vocals toward the end.
War is over!
If you want it
War is over!
OH! That’s the problem! We just haven’t wanted it hard enough. Hear that all you people who have loved ones fighting for our country? You haven’t wanted the war to be over badly enough. You must not really want your loved ones to come home or you would want it enough that it would be over now. It’s not like there are any complicated political matters involved here, it’s just a matter of YOU wanting it enough and you have failed. This seriously reminds me of that speech from the Superman 4 movie where he says that he’s sure we’ll have peace once we want it badly enough. I get that this song was a protest to the Vietnam War, but saying war is over if we want it to be is incredibly shallow and shows a lack of understanding of the bigger picture.

Why do we still sing this song?!?! It’s not only that I hate the song’s message, I just don’t think it’s much of a song. There just isn’t a lot there. There isn’t anything wrong with being simple, but I don’t even like the beat all that much.

Last Christmas
By Wham!

I honestly didn’t dislike this song at first. It wasn’t until multiple listenings that I really started to notice some problems in the lyrics. The chorus sets the stage and on its own sends a pretty good message.
Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special
Sounds pretty good right? He’s moved on from his broken heart and gives a pretty subtle burn to his old love by saying that this time he’ll give his heart to someone special which SHE is not. Ouch. It also fits the Christmas theme of gift giving in a cute way with the giving of your heart. If the rest of this song supported the chorus I don’t think I’d have any problem with it. A song about heartbreak isn’t ideal for a Christmas song, but if it’s hopeful and about finding love this year I can give it a pass.

The song moves into the first verse and we get to a party where he sees the girl again and can’t help but be drawn to her. I can give him a pass for this, she was clearly attractive to him the first time, so there is bound to be a little lingering emotion there. But then the song starts to get confused.
Now I know what a fool I’ve been
But if you kissed me now I know you’d fool me again
Wait, what? That first part suggests that he got over her, that he moved on. Or at least realized that giving her his heart in the first place was doomed to fail because she sucks. But the next line turns it around and makes me think that he’s still in love with her. After a year of sulking over her betrayal of his affections he’s still willing to be fooled by a simple kiss? What is wrong with this guy? Surely no one is that good of a kisser. I mean, I understand having lingering feelings after being rejected, but that doesn’t mean you forget all the pain someone caused you with a single kiss.

The next verse doesn’t really add much, just goes on about how badly she broke his heart while he avoids her at the party.
I’m hiding from you
And your soul of ice
Okay, we seem to be back on track here. He's realized again that this girl is a cold hearted person who couldn’t really love him and is avoiding her. This puts us back in the right direction.

A face of a lover with a fire in his heart
A man undercover but you tore me apart
Uh, what? This part just confuses me.  A man undercover as what? Were you undercover as someone who loved her? But if you were undercover then that would mean you didn’t really love her in the first place but were just pretending. Or are you saying that you seem like a total wuss, but underneath all that you’re really a tough man who then got torn apart by this girl? That doesn’t really work either...

Now I’ve found a real love
You’ll never fool me again
You know what this song has been missing? References to this new love he has. The chorus doesn’t even spell out that he has a new love; just that he’s going to find someone special to give his heart to. This is the first mention we’ve had of this girl existing. I’ve got an idea, instead of focusing on how miserable the old girl makes you, why not look at how happy this new girl has apparently made you? Why hasn’t she come up before in this whole song? Why aren’t you at the party with her? And wait, last verse you said you could be fooled again if the old flame kissed you. Now you’re all assertive that she’s never going to fool you again? All right, that was fast but okay.

Then the kicker in the last few lines.
Maybe next year I’ll give it to someone
I’ll give it to someone special
WHAT?! Now I’m really confused. Not a moment ago he was talking about his “real love.” Did he break up with her during the last chorus? Is he getting together with the old girl again for no reason stated? Is he just so overwhelmed by the memories of the past that he isn’t going to give anyone his heart this year or is he explicitly going to give it to someone who he doesn’t feel is special? He sounded so confident a moment ago, what happened?

This song is kind of a mess. It flip flops back and forth without seeming to really understand where it’s going. The chorus suggests movement and growth but the verses just keep pulling it down and contradicting it. The only real message I can pull out of this song is that the singer is a mess. If the song was supposed to make me confused I guess it succeeded.

That isn’t to say that I hate everything about this song. The melody is catchy and fun (who doesn’t love whispering the echo of “special”?) and the music has enough variation to keep me interested. As long as I don’t think about it very hard I can enjoy this song a bit, but once you think about the lyrics it’s not as much fun to sing.

I probably wouldn’t hate these songs if we sang other songs besides these on a regular basis. But after three years of these songs being just about the only ones my JTEs want to sing in class (and I’ve worked with four different teachers in this time), and the fact that they are played in all the stores and commercials during this time, they have just worn me down. If I had it all to do over again I would really have invested in some good classic Christmas carols and suggested them early and often. But as things stand I’ll probably never be able to hear these two songs again without grinding my teeth a little in frustration.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Even Ninjas must eat

When I go to Kumamoto City I spend most of my time on the shopping arcade. Since we don’t usually take a car to the city it’s nice to have a large variety of things all along a pedestrian street and within walking distance of each other. During my first year here I was once again in the city wandering down the street in the early evening. Suddenly, I stopped because there in front of me was a ninja. He was bowing politely to people and bidding them to come through a small door that I somehow had never noticed before. Above the door was a sign proclaiming that the name of the establishment was “Ninja” (seriously, how did I miss that?). All I could see was a small staircase leading downward. But I was incredibly intrigued. Since it was closed the next morning when I passed by I assumed that it was a restaurant but was worried that because of its apparent awesomeness that it would be very expensive.

Next to McDonald's of all places

Upon further inquiry to my more knowledgeable friends I found out that it was indeed a restaurant, a rather upscale izukaya, which is a type of restaurant that caters to groups who will all be sharing the various foods ordered. It took a while but I eventually got to visit this wonderful restaurant.

When you go to Ninja the first thing they do is ask if it is your first time. If anyone in the group has never been there before, they get to proceed first down the staircase and try to decipher the secret of how to open the door into the restaurant. Once that task is completed, you are shown to your table by a ninja. Each table is located in its own little alcove walled on three sides for privacy. Before sitting, you remove your shoes and leave them just outside the alcove. As with many restaurants of this type, there is a button that you press when you want service. But being Ninja, the button is hidden under the table, and different tables have the button hidden by different seats. Once the waiter ninja has made sure that you know where the button is, they lower a screen to mostly close off the area. And for added awesome they say “Do Don!” while doing so, which is the sound effect for a screen being lowered. This makes me laugh every time.
The normal menu for the restaurant is a paper scroll, written in beautiful, but complicated kanji. However, since this restaurant’s awesomeness is evident, it’s very popular with foreigners and they have an amazingly helpful menu in English with pictures of their various dishes. This is of course the main event for the restaurant and the atmosphere and awesomeness continues to the food. Apologies for the pictures not being so great, but the restaurant is rather dark and my camera was not pleased.

First of all, prepared and waiting for you on your table are small shiriken shaped rolls. You can order more of these if you desire, and it’s always tempting, but you probably won’t have room with all of the other delights on the menu. They have fried cheese, which we always order two plates of at a time since the whole table immediately devours them. They also have fried garlic and fried money brains.

If you’re feeling adventurous you might want to try the Takoyaki bomb. This is a set of six takoyaki, which is octopus in a fried dough ball, with a twist. It’s Russian roulette; five of the takoyaki are tasty treats, but one is filled with spicy mustard that will make you cry. The only way to determine which one it is is by eating them.

One highlight for tastiness and fun is the magical fire sword shish kabob. As it sounds, this is meat and veggies served skewered on a small sword, which they bring to your table and SET ON FIRE.

They also have a “mystery box” and the picture on the menu is just of this very ornamental box. My friends have ordered it and said that, when opened, dry ice like smoke comes out of the box. But they weren’t impressed with the actual food that came in the box, and so we haven’t ordered it yet. We may have to at some point, just for the experience.

One of the most fantastic things about this place is the drink menu. And since we usually stay the night in the city, we are able to indulge in some unique alcoholic drinks. Several milk based drinks are served in baby bottles. There is a “love potion” that comes giving off mystical (dry ice) smoke. There is a drink that comes with a set of liquid filled capsules, one red and one blue matrix style. But my favorite is what we have come to call the mad scientist drink.

This wonderful little contraption comes as a set of test tubes, each with different colored alcohol in them, a small beaker of orange juice, and a pipette for mixing. Not only is it visually appealing, but its tons of fun. You can simply mix the orange juice into each different test tube, or you can experiment using your empty test tube. With this, you can be a fantastic mad scientist, even if you know nothing about science!

On some nights there is a ninja who will, for a small fee, perform magic tricks to show off his ninja skills. All in all, it adds up to an incredibly entertaining and memorable experience. If anyone comes to visit me, we WILL go to Ninja if at all possible. I don’t think I will ever get tired of this place.

Monday, December 13, 2010

I forgot to mention…

I’ve been horrible about updating for the past two months, and I apologize. Things have been a little crazy. So now I will attempt to give a quick update on some things that I have neglected to mention.

Eric already did a post about it, but we won first place in a costume contest at an ALT Halloween Party. Our friend Emily suggested we do a group costume and came up with the brilliant idea of being Tetris pieces. The costumes were a pain to make, but in the end totally worth it. They looked amazing (and totally all linked together)! We got pretty good at putting them together too. After the first long day of work we had them all mostly assembled, another day and then some was required for paint, and a final day for the outline tape and cutting our face holes. We were quite proud of them. Then we went to load them into the car, which was an ordeal in itself (see the linked blogs for highly amusing pictures). I’m proud of the work we did and really enjoyed our costumes. When we walked into the party everyone started taking our pictures. It was like being a celebrity for a brief moment.  I encourage everyone to take a look at Emily's livejournal as she has a fantastic making of entry with tons of great pictures!

We literally had just walked in

Next in November I presented at our Mid Year Seminar. All of the ALTs in Kumamoto and many of the JTEs gather together to talk about teaching English, living in Japan, and other related things. It’s a time to share ideas and help us all to be reenergized in the classroom. My presentation was on Japanese Pop Culture and it was EPIC! But you don’t have to take my word for it! It’s available online here. I had a ton of fun working on the project and it’s something I’m passionate about. Our goals were to make the attendees of our workshop familiar with many pop culture icons that their students are likely obsessed with (so that they have a good conversation starter to talk with the students) and to give some examples of ways to integrate pop culture knowledge into English lessons. I also hoped to help people find something that they could really enjoy while in Japan, some band or TV show that they could really look forward to. I was really worried about having enough time since we had a massive 54 slides to get through and just over an hour to do it. But we got through everything with time for questions and I think most everyone enjoyed the workshop.

My mouth is open entirely too wide in this picture...
 For my birthday we went to a restaurant with a group of friends. The restaurant is called Ninja, and it is amazing (so amazing in fact that I have written a whole entry about it that you can look forward to seeing tomorrow). I got some celebratory ice cream with a sparkler in it and a bunch of ninjas sang happy birthday to me. How many people can say that?

There are actually 8 ninjas in this photo.  Can you find them?  Of course not.  They're ninjas.
 Other than those major events things have been carrying on more or less as normal. I attended my school’s culture festivals but that probably deserves its own post so I won’t dwell on it here. The weather is getting rather cold and miserable at the moment, but I know it will get worse before it gets better. I’m a bit bummed that we won’t be returning to the states for Christmas (although at least I get to avoid crazy airport security) but we’re going to Tokyo for the holidays and that should be a lot of fun.

I’ll do my best to update a bit more regularly. I’ve still got a ton of posts written up on my computer that just need to be put up on the blog. It’s not like I have a shortage of things to talk about! I get more excited about posting when people leave comments, so keep that in mind (you don't have to be a member to comment). Also, don’t forget to check out Eric’s blog as well (there is now a handy link in the sidebar so you can always find it). We are in the same basic area, but we talk about very different things.

That about wraps it up for this overdue update. I hope everyone is doing well and enjoys the holiday season. Also, if you send me a Christmas card I will love you forever.

Monday, November 29, 2010

How to simulate Amanda’s television watching experience

So, in order to get a feel for what it’s often like for me to watch TV in Japan, follow these easy steps.

1. Pick a show or a movie you are unfamiliar with. Your best option is something you have never heard of and know nothing about.
2. Mute the TV.
3. Begin to watch and try to understand the program.
4. Every now and then unmute the TV so that you pick up on a single word or phrase, but then mute it again.

And that’s pretty close. For bonus points, make it a drama with lots of dialogue. One where the conflict is all internal with people crying and talking about their problems a lot. Try to figure out what the heck is going on. For more fun, pick a kids show or game show with lots of visual action! Anything with physical comedy is also a winner. For an extra challenge pick a sci-fi, medical, or crime related show that likely has TONS of specialized vocabulary, and unmute the TV less (as the dialogue as a whole contains less words you might know).

It’s not quite fair, as I still get music and tone of voice to be able to pick up on things, but then again there are a lot of actions onscreen that are highly cultural based that make little sense even if I do pick up on some of the words.

This is pretty much what it was like in my first year, although I’ve improved a lot since then.  I love watching TV in Japan and will probably write up something later about all the great shows I watch.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thinking about the past and the future

Not my past or future mind you. The past and future of my schools. For some reason today I was struck by the fact that in a few years the school I work at two times a week will be an empty building. And it made me really sad. I really started to look around and wonder about things. Some were practical like “Where will all the teachers go?” and “What will be done with all of the school’s resources?” Others were more sentimental such as “What will be done with the artwork of former students that hangs in the hallways?” and “What will happen to all of the school’s history?” This is Japan so I’m sure that there are protocols for these sorts of things. My school won’t be the first to close down, and not even the first in Amakusa thanks to rapid depopulation.

But I started to wonder about my school and how old it was and all of the students that had come and gone over the years. I found some pictures hanging in the entry way that I pass by every day and have never taken notice of. They are wonderful aerial views that must have been taken from a helicopter. They help to show how my school has grown and changed over the years. I now know that at least the elementary school is definitely older than I am. Here is a very short visual history of my school.

This first picture is from 1980.  It seems that at the time, only the elementary school was located here.  I don't know if there was another junior high school on the island if they went to school on another island, or if the junior high is in this picture and they are simply not mentioned in the photo credit.  Be sure to look back at this picture after you see the others to see all the changes.  The two big white buildings are the gym and the elementary school and both are still in use today.  At least as far as I can tell they seem to be the same buildings.  It's really hard to see in the picture (if you click on it you might get a bigger view) but the kids are standing in front of the right building in the shape of the kanji 北 小 which mean north and small (because this school is called North Goshoura and the small because they are elementary students). At the time of this photo there were 81 students at the elementary school. 

Now we flash forward a mere four years.  This picture is still older than I am.  This picture is zoomed out a tiny bit more than the one above.  The major edition here of course is the new road that runs along the sea.  That road runs all the way around the island now, which it clearly did not in the above picture.  There is a small new building on the left hand side and this sort of gives you a perspective of how much land was reclaimed from the ocean since in 1980 the third building looks like it was right on the coast.  This time the students spell out only north and they are down to 69 of them.

A larger jump this time and wow, things have changed!  If I'm right about it being the same gym, it at least got a new roof.  The three buildings from the left side of the previous two pictures have moved to the right side, or rather the bottom in this view.  I guess they must have been portables.  I could be wrong and they could be new buildings, but they look awfully similar.  But of course the big news here is the addition of the junior high school, which Eric pointed out to me looks kinda like a boat.  This time the kids are standing in a circle around kanji written on the ground, this time 北中 which is north and middle to represent the junior high.  During this year of the junior high school's history there were 53 students.

And finally we reach the most recent picture, taken in 2005.  And this is still pretty much exactly how the school looks today.  You'll notice that those other buildings are gone, but we've added a pool.  They also paved the paths from the main road down to the schools.  This picture did not have a helpful note telling me how many students there were, but I zoomed in and can count about 43 of them. 

Today my junior high school has 41 students, although next year the number will drop to 30 since I have an abnormally large graduating class this year (my first year we had 7 graduates, last year 9, but this year we have 19).  The elementary school has only about 32 students with most years having only 4 or 5 students.  I heard last year than in 3 years or so the junior high will be shut down and combined with the school on the other island.  Three years after that the elementary school will close as well.  I'll of course be gone by then, but I can't help but wonder what will happen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I made a student cry today

Yeah…it was one of those days. Several ALTs have told me stories where they have had entire classes close to tears, and luckily I’ve never had anything that bad. I’d only made one student cry before today and that was in junior high.

Today I was at elementary and was teaching my fifth grade class. I’m not a huge fan of this class as they can get really rowdy and difficult to handle. We had a ton of extra time today so we started reviewing the vocabulary for the next lesson. I went around the room and had each student name a flashcard. I have 2 students in this class that I never know if they are going to participate or not. I’m fairly certain both of them have slight learning disabilities and I know English class is difficult. Usually we help them along as best we can. Well I got to the second of these boys (the first one answered fine) and I was met by a blank stare. I gave him a few moments to look at the card, and when I got no response I asked the whole class to say the word together. This is my normal protocol for kids who hardly ever speak in class.

Anyway, I moved on and finished the kids and we decided to play a game. It wasn’t until the kids started moving their desks for the game that I realized that the boy was crying at his desk. The home room teacher was with him and I didn’t know what else to do, so I went on with the game with the rest of the class. He cried the entire game and was still crying when class ended. -_-;

I feel really bad about the whole thing. I’m honestly not sure if he was mad at me or just frustrated with himself (as was the case with the last boy I made cry). I feel bad, but there wasn’t a lot of time left and I didn’t feel I could stand around and wait until he decided to answer, if he even did. Anyway, I’m now worried that I have scarred a child for life and that he will hate English class from now on. Way to go Amanda-sensei.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Small Teachers

This year we tried something new with my second grade class (8th grade) at one of my junior high schools. The class has 11 students, and there is a huge gap in how they are currently doing in English. Five students are doing very well, but the other six are doing rather poorly. And there is no one in the middle. My teacher made a chart for the kids using their scores from the first test they took to demonstrate this to them and what should, in theory, be a bell curve was an M. My teacher realized that he could probably work with one of the lower scoring students for the whole class and they might understand the day’s lesson, but the others would still be lost.

So we started the small teacher program. My teacher paired all the kids up with one strong student and one weak student to a group. He did this based on who needed the most help (the lowest scoring kids are with the highest scoring kids) as well as based on personalities that we hope will work well together. Now we have 5 strong students, but one I believe is severely autistic. She’s very smart and does very well on written activities, but we can’t get her to say anything in class. So she is included in a group of three but works mostly on her own. Honestly the kids probably know how to work with her better than any of us teachers since they have been with her since elementary school and know what she can and won’t do. So that leaves us with only 4 small teachers for 5 groups. The last group works with the teacher when they are discussing what new grammar means, so he can check their understanding and help them along.

The students were a little hesitant at first. The kids we designated as small teachers were nervous, except for one who was absolutely thrilled. But as class went on things fell into place a little more. And by the second class it was as though we had always been doing it that way. We had introduced a new grammar point and had written an example sentence on the board. After repeating it a few times we had then discuss the meaning in their groups. I was amazed by what I saw. Every student in the room was smiling. No one was zoning out or staring blankly at the textbook. My students who normally fall behind were engaged in the lesson and seemed to be enjoying class. I was thrilled with the atmosphere we created.

The girl who used to be the second or third weakest in the class has skyrocketed in skill. Although I can’t claim that this program is solely responsible for that really since the teacher has informed me that she is greatly improving in everything this year from her school subjects to sports. Last year when I would work with her, she would read out of the book so quietly that I could barely hear her while standing next to her. I was ecstatic when she was reading something for the other teacher and I heard her from a good three feet away using a loud, clear voice. And she just seems happier and more self confident this year. She’s really been applying herself and it shows.

One pair is a set of rivals. When we made the pairs the students were probably the lowest scoring small teacher and the highest scoring underperforming student. But oh my goodness. Now the small teacher is applying himself to his work in class much more and his partner is moving up steadily as well. They have great chemistry and compete against each other in a very healthy way. We hit the nail on the head with that pair.

But it isn’t without problems. I know that my best student is REALLY frustrated by the small teacher program. I have confidence that he could help a student who was a little less behind, but his partner is the weakest student in the class and its difficult trying to help him to understand. It’s the same frustrations we often feel, but he’s just an 8th grader, so it’s hard on him. His partner does seem to be improving a little, but he has a really long way to go. Perhaps it would have been better to put the two weakest students in the teacher’s group, so that the small teachers were working with students who would be easier for them to help.

We did a survey of the class after first term to see what the kids thought of the program. My two best students said they didn’t like it much, but ALL of the weaker students said that they found it really helpful. It was hard to break up the program when the half of the class who really needs it appreciates the help and wants it to continue.

Clearly this couldn’t work in all of my classes, but it certainly seems to have done some good in this one. We used to have this set up for every class, but we’ve been doing it less often these days so that our smart kids have a little less pressure. I know that it’s a frustrating situation for my teacher. There is one bit of really good news. At the start of the year two students in that class said on a questionnaire that they did not like English at all. We recently gave them another survey and none of the students picked the lowest option. So at the very least we’ve improved the atmosphere of class, even for those who are struggling. And that’s a start.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Drugs are BAD!

So I saw this story while researching for my Mid Year Seminar presentation on Japanese Pop Culture (also known as the coolest presentation topic EVER) and thought it was interesting enough to repeat. I also think that it provides an interesting contrast to the post I made before about drugs.

So there was a Canadian actor who played a pretty small role on a Japanese drama called “Rymoaden,” which is a dramatization of the life of a legendary samurai named Sakamoto Ryoma. He played a British seaman who is killed by samurai in Nagasaki. The episode aired on October 31st. After it aired a concerned viewer contacted NHK and informed them that the actor had been arrested on September 10th for possession of marijuana. The episode had been filmed in August and NHK had not known a thing about it. The episode will air again on Saturday, and, when it does, the actor’s name will be removed from the credits.

That is how serious drug possession is here. No one wants to be associated with you in any way, and you don’t even get credit for things you have done. Why anyone would take a chance on something like this is beyond me.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Heartwarming Moment

The weather has started to get colder and that always spells a little winter depression for me.  October has been way too busy and I've honestly been feeling a bit overwhelmed.  But today I had a very heartwarming moment that helped to remind me of why I came here in the first place.

Last week, while I was waiting for my boat to take me back to my island after school three adorable elementary school girls came over to hang out with me.  They ran little races with funny walks for me.  They joined me in yelling "See you" to all the junior high students who passed by.  They asked me what all sorts of words were in English, and, to my great joy and surprise, even remembered some of them later.   They even insisted on carrying all of my stuff down to the boat for me, despite my bag being incredibly heavy.  When I got on the boat they stood on the pier and waved and danced and called out "See you!"  They stood there waving as the boat pulled back and stayed there until I couldn't see them anymore.  It was a great end to the day, and needless to say I couldn't stop smiling.

Today I was waiting again and two of the giggling girls ran over.  They had big mischievous grins on their faces and told me to wait for a moment.  I'm not sure where they thought I was going to go, but I assured them that I would wait and they ran off again.  They came strolling back with a third girl, all (badly) hiding something behind their backs.  They made a cute little line in front of me and argued about who was going to go first for a moment.  They decided to all reveal their surprises at once.

These three lovely masterpieces are pictures of me.  And they are probably three of the best presents I have ever received.  These girls are first graders.  I have only taught their class once, and that was way back before summer vacation.  I'm at their school once a week and I attend things like Sports Day and I've stuck my head into their classroom just for fun a few times, but all in all we haven't had that much interaction.  But I'm still important enough in their lives that they took the time to make these for me.  Despite our limited time together I've clearly made a connection with these young girls. 

The whole reason I came to Japan was to make these kinds of connections.  At the end of the day I may not be the best English teacher but there is no denying that I have made a difference here, however small.  I owe these girls a lot of thanks for reminding me of that.  And on days when I feel like I'm doing everything wrong their gifts will remind me again. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Gegege no Kitaro live action movies

Another brief movie review due to my fascination with Japanese demons and ghosts. Gegege no Kitaro (which just means Kitaro from the Gegege Forest) is a very popular manga series here in Japan. It is credited with reviving interest in Yokai (demons) across Japan. It has been turned into an animated series no less than 5 times. I knew about it, but for some odd reason I never really looked into it. It looks like it could easily become one of my favorite series (so don’t be surprised if you hear more about it in the future). Unfortunately, because it does rely pretty heavily on Japanese culture, it has never been brought over to the states. Kodansha apparently translated the first three volumes of the manga as part of their Bilingual Manga Project, but now they are out of print and really hard to find. So I suppose it’s not really that surprising that I didn’t know too much about this series.

Kitaro is a demon who tries to prevent other demons from causing too much trouble in the human world. He’s one of the good demons, who simply wants us all to coexist peacefully. Kitaro has a number of friends who join him on his various adventues, including his father (whose body has decayed to just an eyeball), a cat girl, a rat man, a wall, and a flying white cloth.  They go up against various demons and have a bunch of interesting weapons at their disposal.  It's a lot of fun.

While we were looking for the last movie I talked about, we saw that there were a couple Gegege movies and decided to check them out. The first movie, simply called Gegege no Kitaro (released in 2007), had English subtitles, which we unfortunately didn’t realize until about three-fourths of the way through the film. The story revolves around the search and fight for a magical stone of great power which was removed from its protected shrine and ends up in the hands of humans. Kitaro gets involved trying to protect a high school girl and her little brother while trying to find what their father did with the stone. It was a really fun movie and I really enjoyed all of the demons that showed up throughout the film. The film wasn’t perfect by any means. Some of the special effects are really lame (especially Neko Masume’s transformation, ick). The little kid actor isn’t very good and thankfully in many scenes he is just required to sit around and look sad. But it does a good job of introducing the characters and the world of the demons. And it has kitsune, so that’s an automatic winner in my book. If you like demons and monsters and realize that you are watching a movie made for a younger audience that didn’t have an enormous budget you will probably enjoy it. Also there is an awesome demon dance party at the end, and who doesn’t love that?

The second movie (released in 2008) is called Gegege no Kitaro and the Thousand Year Curse Song. A young girl is cursed and Kitaro and friends try to help break her curse and deal with the greater evil behind it all. Sadly, no English subtitles this time. Unlike the first movie, this one doesn’t really try to set up the world and the characters for the audience. It really jumps right in, so if you are unfamiliar with the series this might not be the best place to go for your first taste. I would imagine they had a bigger budget this time around as many things are greatly improved. Neko Masume’s entire costume looks better and she doesn’t get any awkward transformation scenes like last time. Kitaro only has one eye, and the empty socket of the other one is almost always covered by his hair. In the first movie they completely ignored this and you could frequently see his other eye when the wind blew his hair or even when he turned his head quickly. This time the wig was much thicker and I don’t think I ever saw his other eye. They even threw in a bit with him looking at a bunch of glass eyes to kind of ret con the eye you could see in the last movie and bring it closer to cannon in that regard. This movie had less demons than the first one, but the ones that it did feature were pretty well done (I could have done without the poop slinging deer demon thing, though). We still had a small dance party, although this one was just tanuki and Neko Masume. The music was really good in this movie too, very dynamic and exciting. The action scenes were also much better choreographed.

For all their faults I really enjoyed both movies. Unfortunately, neither movie was released in America. You can probably find places to buy them online, but you’ll need a region two or region free DVD player to watch them and they probably won’t be cheap. If you do decide you want to check them out, I recommend heading to the Gegege no Kitaro Wikipedia page first and checking out the character bios. Unfortunately, there isn’t a plot synopsis for the movies on the page (the second movie isn’t even listed), so you’ll have to muddle through the plot of the second (subtitle-less) one on your own.

*Small Spoiler Alert*

Eric was upset that in both movies Kitaro doesn’t actually beat either of the final monsters. He gets help in both movies from much stronger demons who seem to come in as a sort of deus ex machina. I actually liked that as it showed that Kitaro is NOT the strongest in the demon world. He is fighting a really hard battle against really steep odds and fights anyway. Others recognize his efforts and join him and his cause. It gave a sense of depth to the demon world for me, showing how vast and potentially powerful the demons are.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Epic Stories

This is the 50th post I have made to this blog! Yay! First of all, thank you to everyone who has been reading this blog up till now, and a super big thank you to everyone who has commented. It really means a lot to me that people take the time to see what I’m up to over here (and helps me to not feel completely detached and forgotten). I’m happy that I can share my experiences with my friends and family, as well as people I have never met! I have a lot of posts written up and will try to be a bit more regular about posting them in the future. But enough about me. You’re all really here because I promised something epic for this post, and I aim to deliver.

During my first year on the JET program I had some amazing junior high third grade (9th grade) students. My time with them was far too short, but they certainly made an impression on me. And after this post I’m sure you will see why. For Bunkasai, or Culture Festival which will likely get its own lengthy post later, one of the elective classes did small projects in English. Most students translated Japanese songs or poems into English. But one group of three boys (who all lived in the neighborhood of Arakuchi) decided to write some stories of their own in English.

They wrote and illustrated two stories and I will share them with you now. I know that I’ve been able to share the first story with a lot of you (although it’s worth reading again) but I managed to get some screen shots of the video I took and now I can share the second story with you as well! I’ve typed out the text so it’s easier to read, but I’ve tried to copy it exactly as they wrote it for you to enjoy. Click on any of the pictures to get a bigger view (apologies for the poor quality of the second set).  Enjoy!

By Kento, Kazushi, and Tomohisa

In Goshoura, there were Tomo, Ken and Kazu. They liked sea and often went swimming.

When they were swimming as usual, a tornado appeared near them and they were blown off.

They came to themselves and here was a deserted island. “Where is here?” The looked around well and they found some well known sceneries. But there were many trees around them.

“Boom! Booooom!” They went to the place where the sound came. Then, there were many dinosaurs. “What are they?”

A T-Rex was surprised by the voice and it ran after them. They dashed hard. But they were caught up by the T-Rex and they were almost eaten. At the very time, “Wait!! Wait!!” “Gaaaaaa! Who are you!!”

“Red of passion, Arakuchi Red! Loving the sea, Arakuchi Blue! Shining star, Arakuchi Yellow! Forest guardian, Arakuchi Green! Together, Arakuchi Rangers!!”

“Get this.” “Red pepper!”

“Blue chainsaw!”

“Yellow volt!”

“Green bazooka!”

“Boooooooooon!!!!!” The T-Rex was blown off. “Thank you, Arakuchi rangers.” “You were in dangers. OK. Let’s go back to the present time together.” “What? The present time?” Yes, here was in Goshoura hundred million years ago.

By Kento, Kazushi, and Tomohisa

When they got up they were in Kento’s house.

“Goooooooooooo” Then Kento was changing his appearance. He became an Alien. He had big eyes, his mouth was torn, with big ears, long nails, and a Tail. He was 3 meters tall.
“Go to hell.” “Super miracle hyper beautiful game.”

Yes, it really says that.

While he was saying that Tomohisa and Kazushi ran away. But Kento’s house was a maze. Tomohisa and Kazushi was found soon. Kazushi said “What were you doing, Kento?”. Tomohisa said “You were not such a man”. Kento said “I am the Alien from Tonkatsu Planet. I came here to conquest the Earth.” “You are an Alien Tonkatsu.” I’ve ever heard.” “They eat Tonkatsu as a main dish and they live in a peaceful planet.”

“Why do you want to conquest the Earth?” “My planet Tonkatsu was lost. So I come to this planet to find new Tonkatsu.” “Now I know the reason.” “Then grill and eat us.” “Oh thank you. I’ll eat you.”

“Wait wait.” “Who are you?”
“Red of passion, Arakuchi Red! Loving the sea, Arakuchi Blue! Shining star, Arakuchi Yellow! Forest guardian, Arakuchi Green! Together, Arakuchi Rangers!!” “Get this.”

“Red fire.” “Blue water.” “Yellow lemon.” “Green leaf.” “Boooooooooooooom.” Kento flew in to the sky and disappeared.

“Thank you Arakuchi Range…” Gaba!! They were sleeping in Kento’s house. To tell the truth everything was a dream.

The Goshoura Rangers also made an appearance in the third graders’ skit that year as they showed up to rescue two students from wild boars (one of whom was played by the homeroom teacher) by singing at them. It was by far the best part of the day, so of course my camera ran out of batteries while I was taping it and didn’t save. But I still have the memories and I'm glad I can share them with you.

Hopefully by the 100th post I will have something equally awesome to share with you all!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Taiko Toys and Happy Sets

I love the game Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Drum Master in its one release stateside). It’s pretty much my favorite rhythm game. I have three games for the DS, two for the PSP, two for the Wii (with two drum peripherals), and a whole bunch for the PS2. On top of that, I frequently play the arcade version with friends. So when I found out that there would be Taiko no Tatsujin toys at McDonald’s I was pretty excited. Not only are the toys musical and adorable, but they have codes to unlock new costumes in the latest DS game.

The only catch was that I had to buy Happy Meals, or rather Happy Sets as they are called in Japan, to get them. This was not too bad actually. For Japanese Happy Sets you have four options: hamburger, cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, and mini pancakes. All meals come with either a small French fries or corn and a small (actually tiny) drink. The kid’s meal is the only way you can get nuggets or pancakes at Japanese McDonald’s. I love chicken nuggets and was thrilled to find that the kid’s meal comes with 5 nuggets, while I seem to remember the American kid’s meal only coming with 4. Also, I don’t have the fondest memories of McDonald’s breakfast items. I seem to remember their pancakes being soggy and not too great. But these little gems are delicious! They made a great dessert to the meal.

To top it all off, you get to choose which toy you want! Toys 1-4 were available during the first week with the addition of 5-8 the following week. This made it pretty easy to get a full set. These little guys are so cute and I’m thrilled that I was able to get all of them. Each one plays a musical cue appropriate to their costume. The coolest thing is the password system on the DS game. The music cues ARE the passwords and you play them into the DS mic and that unlocks the new costumes! It’s not something I’ve seen before on the DS and its very inventive and fun.

The next post will be the epic 50th post for this blog!  It should be up some time next week, so look forward to it!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sports Festival

This past weekend (two weekends ago now, as I suck at posting in a timely manner…) I attended an event called undoukai, or Sports Festival, at one of my schools. This event is somewhat like a Field Day as I remember it from elementary school. My students were all divided into 2 teams, red and white. They competed in various events and earned points for their team. At the end of the day the scores were tabulated and one team was declared winner. They received a giant trophy to hold during closing ceremonies and have bragging rights for the next year.

The school looking spiffy for the event

My Sports Day is a little different from most others in Japan since my elementary school and junior high hold the event together. On my other island, where the schools are a little bigger, the elementary holds their Sports Day in the fall (and annoyingly always on the same day as the other school so I never get to go) and the junior high has theirs in the spring. But since these schools are right next to each other and are very small they have always held the event together.


Sports Day is a bit of a misnomer because probably 60-70% of the events are various types of races. Running day sounds WAY less exciting though. The kids aren’t the only ones involved either. There were various weird relay races where the teachers and parents got involved too. It’s a large community event. Adults don’t earn points for either team (they are normally divided into teams by neighborhood) in their events, but everyone who participates in them is awarded a practical prize like paper towels, tissues, soap, or garbage bags. The tiny kindergarteners also attend for their mini races and dances.

The popular roll the hoop race

Several of my old students who are now in high school were there and some teachers who had transferred away came back just to see the students again and enjoy the event. Living on the islands here is difficult, but the kids and the school are really great and so a lot of the old teachers come back. I’m not sure how common it is at other schools, but I’d say the majority of our old teachers who transferred this past year came back. It was cute seeing the kids run up to them to talk with them again. Also one of my favorite student who moved to Kumamoto City when her mother changed jobs in April came back to see all her friends! She even got to participate in one of the races. It was so good to see her again. I really miss having her in class.

Obviously not my kids, but this is an event the little ones do.

A big difference from the Field Days I remember as a kid is that the students run pretty much everything. The kids do the announcements of the events and the participants, they fire off the starting gun, they hold the finish line tape, they spend an entire day before the event at school to set up, and they tear everything down when the day is over. At my Field Day in America there were parents who volunteered and helped run the events and the kids just got to enjoy it. But the kids here have serious ownership of the event.

This kid had a broken arm, so he couldn't do much.  But he did the drums for one of the dances.
 Another big difference is the amount of practice my kids do for Sports Day. In the month of September one or two periods of school every day were devoted to preparing for the event. Yes, as in normal class time is used to practice and some of my kids end up with days with three out of six classes being P.E. They practiced how to march in for opening ceremonies and where to stand and sit during all of the speeches. They practiced the closing ceremony, including announcing one team the winner so they can practice cheering (I’m assuming they alternate each practice run). They practiced the various dances they would do for the crowd. And that all makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is that they also seem to run through all of the events. They did tug of war and ran races. If the kids are always pretty evenly matched then I suppose it’s okay, but I would think that it would take the fun out of it if your team has repeatedly lost in practice. You would be pretty sure the actual event will turn out the same way. They also practice things like the dances and Oendan before and after school and during lunch break. These kids pretty much breath Sport’s Day until it’s over.

My kids practicing Oendan for the big day
 Oendan is a type of cheering that is popular here in Japan. It’s pretty awesome to watch. It’s far more like our Yell Leaders at A&M than cheerleaders though. It’s all based on synchronized hand and arm movements and generally looking badass. It is probably the event my kids get the most serious about. It’s a very big deal to win the Oendan competition. I was a judge this year which was fun, although I wanted both teams to win!

Dancing!  This is the Soran Bushi, its a very popular Sports Day dance.

This year I participated in 4 events at Sports Day. The first was a race between a bunch of women from the island. Teams were divided based on the neighborhood you lived in. I was on the teachers’ team. Each team had a pair of rain boots that you had to put on, run down to this giant orange float thing, pick it up, run around a cone, put the float back down in its spot and run back to the line to pass the shoes off to the next person. The shoes were too small for me, and I didn’t get them on all the way before the other teachers told me to go. So I ran very strangely with the shoes only about half on. We didn’t win the race but we all won a box of tissues for our efforts. Next I was in the tug of war event for the entire PTA. Again I was on the teachers’ team. Again we were not victorious, although I think there were less of us than the other teams. My last race involved balancing a big rubber ball on a tennis racket while running to a cone and back. And lastly I joined in the Goshoura dance, which is a special traditional dance for the islands that we all do together in a circle. It’s pretty easy to learn and it’s fun to be out with all of the kids and parents.

Elementary kids dancing with flags!  So cute!
 One of my favorite events was “Never yield the stick” (actual name, written in English in the program). Teams lined up opposite each other with these big poles in the middle. At the sound of the whistle they all swarmed the center and grabbed the poles, trying to drag them, and any members of the other team, back to their side. Hilarity ensued. The elementary school kids had a similar event involving the tug of war rope, and my other junior high school does it with tires of various sizes. It’s really funny to watch and the kids get really into it.

The kids make mascots for their teams.  This is the red team's mascot.
These mascots are from the school I did not attend Sports Day for.

My best story from this year’s Sport’s Day came after it was over. We had been outside all day and it had really heated up after lunch. The kids were working hard and had taken all the tents down. About half of the kids, mostly girls, were sitting around waiting for the other half to finish up so we could have our closing comments and go home. One of my third grade (9th grade) girls named Tsugumi was absolutely hilarious. She sat down and said in English, “I don’t work anymore!” She continued on, “I’m very hot and thirsty and tired and hungry. I want to go home. I want to go to bed. I want to drink juice.” I was giggling to myself, very content that she was able to express herself so well in English. “I don’t work anymore,” she said again. “I will die soon!”

And this is the white team's mascot. 
The raindeer's hat was pink (its normal color) but pink is the red team's color so it had to be changed!

Sports Day is always a lot of fun and it’s really great to interact with all of the kids outside of a classroom setting. I walked away from this year’s event with three boxes of tissues, a box of plastic bags, a bottle of liquid soap, over 400 pictures, and a nasty sunburn on my arms and neck. I could honestly go on and on about everything we did at Sports Day, but hopefully I’ve given you a pretty good overview of the event. Feel free to ask me any questions if I left something out!