Posts in April 2010

Yesterday, I braved the crowds at Asakusa’s Senso-ji temple to witness a time honored Japanese tradition – shaking babies. No, I don’t mean the sort of behavior that results in Shaken Baby Syndrome, but the infinitely more entertaining one type that involves young sumo wrestlers.

Every year on the 4th Sunday of April, Senso-ji Temple at Asakusa holds a nakizumo festival, where young sumo wrestlers stand in a traditional sumo ring and compete to see who can make a baby cry the loudest and longest. A referee watches and yells, “Nake nake nake! (Cry, cry, cry!)” until finally declaring one baby the winner. The cries of the babies are supposed to bring good fortune to the children and drive away evil spirits. This type of festival is held in a various locations around Japan…in Asakusa, it has been going on for 400 years.

I was a little disappointed that they didn’t recruit full-grown sumo wrestlers to scare the kids into crying, I would have loved to see a big sumo wrestler holding a tiny baby. Instead, we got two sumo-wrestlers-in-training. Neither one of them looked much older than 15 to me. It was quite entertaining to watch these two chibi-sumos try to make the babies cry – one was fond of throwing the kids into the air (which they seemed to enjoy more times than not) while the other was trying to be very nice to the babies (which only seemed to make then cry harder). That’s babies for you, fickle creatures indeed.

When neither of the sumos could make a baby cry, the judges busted out some silly plastic oni (demon) masks and wore them in front of the babies – which made the audience burst out into laughter and the kids burst out into tears. Can anyone say, ‘Traumatized for life’?

I’m not going to lie to you, readers, and say that I didn’t have certain reservations about the new school year. I was utterly blindsided when I saw the amount of changes that occurred at my schools over haru yasumi (spring vacation). We’re talking new vice principals at BOTH schools, two new English teachers at one, and a whopping 13 teachers transferring and being replaced.

For those of you who don’t know the way Japanese schools work when it comes to teachers – teachers aren’t hired by the school, but by the Board of Education. In my prefecture, the BOE places teachers at a school for a three year term. As far as I know, the teachers don’t really have much say in where they are placed. At the end of those three years, the teacher can either request to stay at the school for another term or will be transferred to a new location. This means that there is a constantly cycling in and out of teachers every year.

I walked into the teacher’s room at the beginning of this month thinking that I was a seasoned ALT veteran who knew exactly what to expect and how things operated only to be bitch slapped back into my rightful role as wide-eyed gaijin newbie. Strangely enough, I think the hardest thing for me to psychologically comprehend was that my desk had been moved at both schools. This might seem silly, but desk placements in Japanese offices follow very visible hierarchical rules. At one school, I cheerfully walked into work to see that I had received a demotion. Before, my desk had (rightfully) been at the very lowest rung of the totem pole – but it was still connected to the rest of the other teachers’ desks, so I still felt included. Now, I’ve been quarantined at an isolated desk that is wedged into between the printers, public-use computer, and working timecards. I’m fairly certain that if a broom closet had been available they would have stuck me in there. Unfortunately, all the broom closets are being used, so they’re still going to need to see Whitey everyday (the worst part of this new desk placement is actually that I now have a very clear view of Spider Solitaire Sensei when he decides to play Spider Solitaire on the computer. The clicking, dear god, the clicking!). [Please read the above paragraph with a healthy edge of perky sarcasm, I’m not being mean here!]

Feeling pretty dejected about my demotion, I walked into the other school expecting the worst…only to see that at this school I had actually been promoted up a few rungs in the office desk hierarchy. I am now securely wedged in between another English teacher and the new music teacher. So, I guess the demotion and the promotion actually cancel each other out and I have the exact same standing that I enjoyed last year.

But, I can now officially say that I am absolutely stoked about the new school year. Not only are the ichinensei (first year students) that I had last year no longer afraid of me, but the new ichinensei in both schools are a group of extremely happy and fun kids who actually WANT to participate in English class! Even if they aren’t particularly thrilled about English, they are willing to put in some effort and have fun in class.

The one student who instantly earned my affection though is a young boy who jokingly told me that his nickname is Sukebe-kun (‘sukebe’ is the Japanese word for pervert or dirty old man, ‘kun’ is a suffix that is commonly used for guys by their friends or teachers). “Please call me Sukebe.” He was pretty shocked to discover that I actually know what that word means (his friends totally flipped and laughed at him) and he’s definitely earned a nickname that will stick.

The class that always blows me away and is always my favorite class is the sannensei (third year) Advanced English Communication Class. This class is offered as an elective, so the kids are in it on an entirely voluntary basis. Last year, there were only three boy students in the class, this year there are three boys and one girl. They are all super intelligent kids and have a serious determination to learn English. Two of the boys are members of the yakyuu-bu (baseball team) AKA The Coolest Boys in School. I’m going to write a separate post about Boys in the Yakyuu-bu, so right now I’ll just say that these boys have a certain air of confidence and bravado about them. Here on this blog, I’ll call these two boys Shaved Eyebrow-kun (because he shaves his eyebrows very thin, something that is very common among young Japanese guys) and Ikemen-kun (ikemen is the Japanese word for ‘hunk.’ During last year’s natsu matsuri (Summer Festival), I caught two Japanese housewives oogling this boy and calling him ikemen.)

During today’s jiko shoukai, Ikemen-kun informed me, “Shaved Eyebrow-kun is my teammate. But today he is being shy boy.”

Absolutely endearing, even though hearing the term ‘shy boy’ applied to anyone over the age of 5 makes me think of serial killers. =P

Ikemen-kun also told me that he wants to move to New York City and ‘be like Derek Jeter.’ That might not strike you as super interesting, but here in inaka-ville it’s highly unusual to meet someone who wants to move abroad. I’m sooo excited and lucky to get to teach in a class full of fantastic students like this!

Needless to say, I’m an unbelievably excited about the 2010-2011 school year! JET is definitely something that takes some getting used to. If you can learn how to adapt to the surprises that unexpectedly pop up during your time in Japan, JET is definitely one of those programs that keeps getting better the longer you do it.

Every person why applies to the JET Program knows that they are going to be assisting in teaching English in some way during their time in Japan. The title ALT can mean anything from BigDaikon‘s infamous ‘glorified tape recorder’ to being given the responsibility of designing and teaching all of your classes (which is my situation…lots of work and a steep learning curve, let me tell you!). But something that I definitely DID NOT expect to find myself doing was giving JAPANESE LESSONS.

One of my schools has a heavy ‘international’ focus. Part of this involves the school not only sending students to study abroad (in places like Switzerland as well as the US). It also means that every year a new international student is brought to study at the school and live with the Japanese students in the dorm. Last year’s student was an extremely smart Korean girl who not only spoke fantastic Japanese but near-fluent English as well. She came to speak with me every day after school and I really loved listening to her whip out slang from episodes of Gossip Girl. Seriously, I had to start watching the TV series so that I could keep up with her…and to be able to field her many questions about American culture and teenagers. No, not all American teenagers are drug addicts. No, American teenagers do not leave school and head directly to the nearest swanky bar and knock back martinis. On a side note, this is probably the only time in my life that people will tell me that I look like Serena van der Woodsen.

But, I digress.

The new international student is an equally bright boy from Vietnam. Yesterday, my favorite English teacher came to my desk and asked me if I would help teach him Japanese every Wednesday after school. My initial reaction was something to the effect of:

“Are you joking? No one should ever learn Japanese from me!”

Sounds like a case of the blind leading the blind here…or more accurately, a retarded blind person (namely me) leading an unsuspecting victim off a cliff. The reason why this situation came about is because the new exchange student can’t speak any Japanese but CAN speak excellent English. So, the Japanese English teachers have taken him under their wing. Unfortunately, none of the English teachers have any experience teaching Japanese (or taking Japanese lessons, obviously). And thus they turn to me – the retarded blind person.

Now, before you go off criticizing the Japanese education system or the JET Program, I want to say that this isn’t really a bad idea. Not only do I have a large amount of Japanese language textbooks lined up of my bookshelf, I have also taken three years of Japanese lessons. More importantly, my role here is more to provide moral support and a break from his mandatory three hours of sitting in the library studying Japanese from a textbook every day. I know exactly how much fun sitting alone in a room with a Japanese textbook for hours can be…NONE. On top of this, these lessons take place after school on a purely volunteer basis. Today was our first Japanese class and I made it clear that, while I would be helping Sensei teach him Japanese, I would also take the role of a student in this class. I will be doing all of the homework and tests alongside him.

I have to say, I have enormous respect for this kid and his determination. He can’t speak any Japanese. At all. Other than two months of studying from a textbook, he hasn’t taken any Japanese classes. He can read hiragana, some katakana, and no kanji. And yet he was brave enough to come to Japan and study abroad in a Japanese school for a year. When I was his age, just going to my private Japanese tutor’s house every Sunday was enough to make me a nervous wreck. AND, when it comes to our Wednesday classes, he is not only trying to learn Japanese from scratch but he is also having it explained to him in English, another foreign language! Writing this fills my head with terrifying images of me being taught Japanese in German. Terrifying, I say, absolutely terrifying!

We’re starting from Chapter 1 and 2 of the first volume of Genki, the textbook series that I used during my first two years of Japanese classes in university. This chapter covers the most elementary basics of Japanese grammar, like:

__X____Y__ です。 As in: 私はコンスタンティンです。

What really surprised me is that, halfway through an explanation about conjugating Japanese verbs, I realized that I’m not as inept as I thought I was when it comes to Japanese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely inept – just not completely inept. I tend to think that I can’t speak Japanese until I open my mouth and Japanese pops out. Looks like this is another lesson in “Constantine needing to relax, stop worrying, and just do it.” That’s my life, a perpetual Nike advertisement.

Last Updated: Sept. 4th, 2010

A Note: Please keep in mind the information in this post is based on the content found in Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program by David L. McConnell – one of the few published academic studies of the JET Program. Throughout this post, I continuously note when the data was collected (the 1980s-1990s) and that it might not be reflective of the current selection process of some or any of the Japanese embassies or consulates that conduct interviews. This entry is not meant to serve as a definitive guide to the application process or as a list of the exact criteria JET candidates should fulfill. It’s just here to provide a bit of information to people who are interested in reading more about the application process. While I find the information within this article to be a fairly accurate representation of my experiences with the JET Program, please keep in mind that both the JET Program and it’s participants are a very large and diverse group. As such, the selection process seems to vary widely between individual consulates and between different countries. I don’t wish to encourage or discourage anyone for apply to JET with this post – I simple want to present a little bit of information on a process that many find extremely daunting, long, and fairly mysterious. ~C.

When I began applying to the JET Program in the fall of 2008, I spent a lot of time online trying to find information about how the JET selection process actually works. While the official JET Programme website, the AJET website, and every website for the consulates involved in the program all contain some information on the process, none of them actually get into the specifics of how JET goes about selecting candidates. Most of the websites just tow the party line, which goes something like:

“The recruitment and selection of JET Programme participants is conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications. (The number of participants from each country is determined according to the needs of the local governments in negotiation with the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.)

The final decision regarding acceptance of candidates is made at the Joint Conference for International Relations where the three Ministries (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) meet.”[i]

In other words, they don’t tell you a whole lot about how the selection process actually works and the criteria they use to accept people is somewhat unknown. After acceptance or rejection, most people just forget about the whole application process and don’t write about it anymore. But, something about its extremely opaque nature has always rubbed me the wrong way. I think that it is this opaqueness that makes the long selection process so uncomfortable for the applicants, especially for people like me who tend to micro-analyze things. So, I set out to find out more on how JET actually selects candidates.

David McConnell's book

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there. The best study of the JET Program is undoubtedly Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program by David L. McConnell. While discussing his methodology, McConnell accurately points out that “I found negotiating access to Ministry of Education and CLAIR officials and gaining permission to observe national-level conferences quite difficult; a general ministry policy forbids any outside research on the JET Program.”[ii] The fact that outside research is prohibited, while not at all surprising, does a good job explaining why it feels like so much of the JET Program is shrouded in secrecy. Before you start demanding more transparency, keep in mind that this is not an entirely abnormal policy for a Japanese ministry to adopt…it just makes the application process more frustrating.

The following information draws heavily on the research in David McConnell’s book. Importing Diversity is the best book I’ve ever read about the JET Program and I think that it should be required reading for anyone who participates or applies to the program. However, the biggest problem with this information is that it is outdated. It was published in 2000 (making it at least 10 years old already) AND the book examines the early years of the JET Program. JET began in 1987, which officially makes the program as old as I am. Any organization that has operated for that long is bound to have undergone some operational changes. Therefore, it’s impossible to know just how outdated McConnell’s description of the application process actually is.

I still think that the information in his book is extremely valuable to potential JET applicants. In fact, my own experience with the application process and the information in Importing Diversity are extremely similar. Still, be sure to exercise your critical reading skills with the rest of this post.

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HBO's The Pacific

The Second World War is a massive subject, so I will endeavor to stick closely to the subject of The Pacific – the land war fought by the marines in the South Pacific and on the islands surrounding Japan. This will be very difficult for me…those who have had the misfortune of experiencing one of my rants about military history no doubt know that I have a tendency to get a bit overexcited. So, please forgive me for any subsequent deviations from the main theme.

When you think about the Pacific War, you need to think about two things: naval and air power. So much of our modern view of the military application of naval and air power is the product of WWII. When we examine the late 1930s and early 1940s, we need to understand that military thinking was quite different then. For example – the destruction of two-thirds of the Russian fleet at the hands of Admiral Togo in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima convinced nearly every military planner that battleships were going to be the most important and valuable piece of technology for a modern navy. Thus, everyone began building battleships. However, it was not the battleship that proved critical in the war in the Pacific but the aircraft carrier. The development of aviation caused the battleship to get leapfrogged. Nowadays, this seems completely obvious – of course an aircraft carrier’s ability to effectively project military force far exceeds the battleship. However, during the interwar years, military strategists were still unsure of exactly how to use aviation effectively. The Air Force didn’t even exist then, it was still merely a small and little respected division in the Army called the Air Corps (and another division with in the Navy). More importantly, most of the top brass in the Army and Navy remained unconvinced over how effective airpower could be. Yes, it had proved effective during WWI for gathering intelligence or when used in conjunction with land forces such as infantry. Many were skeptical of how effective airpower would be when used alone. This was partially because aviation was still rapidly developing at that time – in the late 1930s, airpower would not have been enough to replace either the navy or coastal artillery in America’s defense, despite Brigadier General William Mitchell’s claim that it could.[1] But it was also due to the revulsion that many felt at the idea of using airpower on civilian targets. You see, it was during WWII, with the aerial bombardments of Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, and almost every single nation associated with the conflict by almost every single nation involved with the conflict, that we began to desensitize ourselves to the questionable morality of bombing densely populated urban areas. In any case, while it is difficult to overemphasis the importance of airpower in the Pacific War, it is also unlikely that many of America’s military planners fully realized this in the late 1930s-early 1940s.

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Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island

I was initially going to post an entry complaining about my job, but I think I’ll sit on the draft for a little while longer to see if I still feel the same way tomorrow. Let’s not be rash when it comes to posting on the public domain…

So instead you get a post about whiny French nihilists. But first I will tell you a story, so if you just want the book review skip down a few paragraphs.

I hate the French. Now, I know that this sounds completely small-minded and ridiculous, but I will still say it. I hate the French. Not on an individual level, for I am sure that there are many French people who I would get along with famously. But as a general group,  I hate the French. I could make a list of all the silly, vague reasons for this, but in reality I am holding the entire culture responsible for the actions of one extremely ridiculous boy I encountered while I was in university.

After randomly approaching me in the student union and asking me out to lunch, this boy (I will call him Frenchie) said something to the effect of:

“Stop doing that with your eyes.”

“What?” I replied, more than a little bit confused.

“Stop doing that thing with your eyes…it’s like they’re hypnotizing me.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

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Still trying to get rid of the last remnants of the cold that I caught while traveling with my father these last few weeks, I had a funny moment where I emerged from my apartment and was completely shocked to discover that not only is it sunny today but it is also freaking WARM. Granted, I try to keep my apartment as dark and cave-like as possible to protect my vampiric gaijin-whiteness from anything that even closely resembles direct sunlight, but I thought it was at least safe to assume that since yesterday it was pouring rain and freezing cold that today would be somewhat similar. WRONG.

So, half-blind, I stagger over to the grocery store (no, there are no conbini here) to buy more fluids. People who know me are aware of the fact that I need to consume bizarrely large amounts of water/tea/diet soda everyday because my body tends to dehydrate like a Sham-Wow in the middle of Death Valley. This also means that I get extreme hangovers every single time I drink ANY alcohol WHATSOEVER. But, anyways…back to the fluid-seeking expedition. Let me just take the opportunity to state the obvious and say that I am not a Japanese girl. This means that I have not been raised to feel that it is necessary to put on a full face of makeup, curl my hair into some ridiculous up-do, and wear ankle-braking high heels for a visit to the grocery store to buy precious, life-giving water (or in my case, CC Lemon Zero, which is probably slowly giving me cancer). However, I am aware that I probably committed at least 5 Japanese faux pas by venturing out into public in workout clothes and hair THAT WAS STILL WET FROM THE SHOWER. For shame, Constantine! Still, I don’t necessarily know if that merits me being suspiciously stared at by everyone in the grocery store like I am about to break open a deadly vial of the ebola virus and kill them all.

After that humbling experience, I returned to my evil lair of doom and proceeded to waste away an hour of my life following various YouTube links. I am confused and disturbed by the seeming extreme popularity of R&B music videos from Korea…

On the WordPress Stats page you can look at the search engine terms that people used to find your site. Here is a partial screenshot of mine:

Is everything you read on the internet true?

Hmmm, I had no idea!

Seriously, internet, you never cease to amuse me. Thanks for the laugh and a new running joke for me to throw around when I am bored. =P

About a 30 minute train ride outside of Tokyo is the city of Kawasaki, a typical Japanese suburb that sports a large train station/depaato and many neon-clad pachinko parlors. Every year on the first Sunday of April, Kawasaki is invaded by a flood of gaijin, Tokyo’s LGBT community, and curious onlookers to participate in (or just scratch their heads at) the Kanamara matsuri, the Iron Penis Festival. Each year, the Wakamiya Hachiman-gū Shrine (若宮八幡宮) parades Kanamara-sama, an iron phallus over 3 feet tall, around the streets near the shrine. Wakamiya Hachiman-gū Shrine is a Shinto fertility shrine and hosts a plethora of penis-shaped objects in various places around their grounds.

According to an old legend, a demon fell in love with a beautiful (but relentlessly pure) young virgin. Upon hearing of her engagement to a young man, the spiteful demon crawled up inside her and proceeded to bite off the penises of both her first and second husbands when they tried to ‘seal the deal.’ Logically, the best solution was for the people of the village to make an iron phallus to deflower the girl. Upon chomping down on the metal penis, the demon broke his teeth and evacuated the girl’s vagina.

Oddly enough, this story reminds me of a Tanith Lee short story called ‘The Weasel Bride’ from her collection Book of the Dead which I read, I kid you not, when I was 12 years old. Guess that’s what I get for liking to read unicorn books. Upon googling this short story, I discovered that this legend seems to reappear in a variety of cultures, not just Japan. Is this just an expression of male castration anxiety (ala Freud), intimidation of the all-consuming female vagina, or was there actually a sub-species of women with toothy vaginas that became extinct (presumably due to the troubles associated with procreation)?

I heard about this festival from my friend Bluesheeft, who attended it last year. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to observe this festival myself, I headed out to Kawasaki yesterday with my friends 7thwave42, TheDutchGaijin (fresh off the boat from the Netherlands), and of course Bluesheeft and his mother (it’s not what it sounds like). I thought that this event must be fairly unique, but after mentioning it to several Japanese people they informed me that this sort of event is fairly common in the rural areas of Japan.

Of course, we were treated to many drunk people (foreign and Japanese), a Japanese surf/rockabilly band, and plenty of girls sucking on penis-shaped candy and having their photos snapped by sketchy Japanese men and their high-tech cameras. So, this is what those creepy guys ogling telescopic lenses at Yodobashi Camera do on the weekends.

I had a drunk old Japanese man fondle my hand and tell me that I should go and pray to Kanamara-sama in order to thank him for making men ‘genki,’ particularly Bluesheeft, who he assumed was my boyfriend. At least, I think that is what he said. I only understand 50% of what people say to me in Japanese and when alcohol gets thrown into the mix that number significantly decreases. I then had a run in with a bitchy peroxide blonde touting massive cleavage and penis candy who thought I disapproved of her amateur porn star photo shoots. I honestly didn’t and this only reinforced my fear of women. They are scary, scary creatures with claws. I also saw enough drunk American men running around the festival to make me renounce my nationality and claim I came from Canada.

If you are in Tokyo next April and want to experience something interesting, I highly recommend you check out the Kawasaki Iron Penis Festival.

How to Get There: The easiest way is to take the Keikyū Daishi Line (京急大師線) from Shinagawa Station (easily accessed by the JR Yamanote Line) to Kawasaki Daishi Station. This will place you right by the Wakamiya Hachiman-gū Shrine, which hosts the Kanamara matsuri.