Monday, September 29, 2003

One other thing that happened this past summer, which I haven't told you about yet, is that I had to give a 90 minute speech about "America." Now, with a topic that broad, I didn't have a problem with coming up with 90 minutes of material.

The problem was, I had to give the speech in Japanese.

It was pretty nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The audience was about 30 members of the Higashiichiki Retired Persons Club, so, naturally, they were interested in how senior citizens lived in the United States. Naturally, I told them a lot about Florida. [/rim shot] No, seriously, I tried to explain that, just like in Japan, retired people in the states live in a variety of ways. I mentioned retirement homes, snowbirds, Winnebagos (that was difficult), part-time jobs, etc.

I also touched on a wide variety of other things about the States, and how different -- and the same-- it is from Japan. Schools, television, cars, electronics, people, houses. . . a lot of stuff.

Judging from the question and answer session (one of the community center staff was kind enough to translate the questions from Kagoshima dialect. . . into Japanese), the audience enjoyed my speech.

Since then, I have noticed that the people here in Higashiichiki town (already very polite) have been even friendlier than before. It seems like the Retired Persons Club has continued to discuss about me and my speech, to more and more people.

Cool.

Fall is coming, and the weather is finally cooling off. Thank goodness.

Rob

An Observation on Living in Kyushu

It was fun being a commuter for a while. I had a train pass and everything, although it was kind of an adventure getting that. ("No, I don't want the 11 tickets for the price of ten, I want a pass for the whole month of August!") So, I got to see the train stations every day. And, I began to notice some things.

To a lot of young people here, Kyushu is a place to move out of as soon as possible. So, the population is dropping every year, and evidence for this can be found at the train stations. For example, let's take a look at Higashiichiki Station.

Most of the trains that stop here have a consist of two or three cars. During rush hour, an occasional four-car train comes through. Recently, Japan Rail has been upgrading the platforms at various stations, including putting colored tile safety markings to replace the old painted lines, as well as raising the platform at some stations to make it easier to get into the trains.

Now, when I saw the finished work at Higashiichiki Station, I was impressed. But, I noticed that the new tile markings stopped about 2/3 of the way down the platform. As I walked down to the far end, I saw where the older markings continued on for another car-length or two. And, past that, I saw that the platform sloped down to what must have been the original platform level, which had been appparently raised up at some point before.

The original platform extended on another two or three car-lengths, before it also sloped down to grade level. Instead of the asphalt surface of the newer part of the platform, it had a gravel-and-dirt surface, through which a multitude of weeds were growing.

When Higashiichiki Station was first built, it was designed to handle trains that were six or seven cars long. After a while, they raised the platform to eliminate the step up into the train, but only for four cars. Now, with the number of commuters continuing to decline, they've renovated the station again -- but only for two cars.

Starting October 1, there will no longer be a full-time JR employee staffing Higashiichiki station.

I find this kind of sad, really.

One of the towns in Fukuoka Prefecture has an ALT from Ireland. (Her nom de net is Marie...) This is her second year on the JET Program, and she had a good first year. But....

Last April, two new English teachers transferred into her school. These were new teachers, not quite fluent in English, and unused to working with an ALT.

Recently, the English teachers gave Marie some unusual instructions:

1. Don't teach anything other than what's in the English book.
(thus, no lessons on Ireland, or any other cultures not mentioned in the book.)

2. Speak primarily Japanese in the classroom.
(odd, since we were hired to speak primarily English in the classroom.)

3. SPEAK ENGLISH WITH AN AMERICAN ACCENT ONLY.
(WHAT THE F$#%????)

They even handed her the CDs from the book and told her to take them home and practice!

Now, when Marie tried to explain that to change accents on short notice would be difficult, if not impossible, she was told to do it anyway. When she went on to say that American is not the only kind of English in the world, and it was rather insulting to be told that it was, she was told to do it anyway.

When she said that she couldn't do #2, and wouldn't do #3, they told her that she would, or else they wouldn't work with her at all. This meant that she would alternately not go to class, or teach class all by herself (which isn't even allowed!). And now, these teachers have complained about Marie to her school board, which resulted in the school board making life difficult for her.

At first, the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) (the government committee ostensibly in charge of the JET program) said that they wouldn't get involved, because they both agreed with and didn't want to overrule the local authority. However, hundreds of outraged JETs have been sending letters and e-mails, pretty much forcing CLAIR to take another look. Also, the National Association of JET participants (National AJET) has spread the word to JETs all across Japan.

Now, if we ALTs were hired only to teach English, Marie would have much less of a case. But, there's another part of our job description: internationalization. Not Americanization. The teachers that I am fortunate enough to work with don't seem to have a problem with this concept.

To be fair, I should point out that despite the fact that there are many local dialects of Japanese, teachers in Japan are required to speak in the "standard" (Tokyo) dialect, so these teachers may have felt that their requests were not unreasonable. However, their subsequent actions lead many to speculate that they're just trying to bully the foreigner.

This is a case where the stated goals of the JET Program conflict with how the Japanese educational system works. As well as English teaching, the JET program preaches kokusaika, internationalization, while Japanese schools are geared towards students passing the high school entrance examinations. And, of course, kokusaika is not tested -- but American-style English is.

What is "American English," anyway? To say that all Americans speak exactly the same "style" of English is absurd. For example:

"Pop" vs. "Soda"

Southern Drawl vs. Noo Yawk

"Rubber Band" vs. "Rubber Binder"

"Casserole" vs. "Hot Dish"

"Hey, that's cool" vs. "Yo yo yo, dat's da shiz'nit!"

People have been suggesting to Marie that she should do some sort of exaggerated "homeboy" slang and tell them that it's "American English." (She wouldn't be lying!) Others have suggested that she tell those Japanese Teachers of English that they also have to speak with an "American" accent too!

Friday, September 19, 2003

Hey, have you all heard about Engrish.com? I got one of my pictures accepted there! Take a look:
My picture

Saturday, September 13, 2003

A Few Odd Things Happened Today

I went to the city today. I walked into the electronics store and went to the cell-phone area, to see if they could charge my phone. As I crossed the floor, one of the employees shouted DEKKAI!! loud enough for everyone around to turn and stare. (Dekkai basically means "big.")

I gave her an odd look for a few seconds, long enough for her to realize that I had heard her (how could I not?) and what was more, I understood her. Once she got that, she came over to me and asked how tall I was. We had a brief, polite conversation.

I've been given to understand that things like this are not really considered rude in Japanese society. It's still very surprising/somewhat annoying when it happens, though.

Later on in the evening, I was walking across the street, conversing with a friend on my cellphone. A young woman passed me, overheard me, stopped, turned, and stared at me. I was startled enough to stop as well. After a few seconds, she asked, Gaijin? ("Are you a foreigner?")

I responded without thinking, Hai, so desu. This only served to further confuse her, and she turned to the friend she was with and began chattering at high speed, continuing to cross the street, while I headed over to the tram stop.

Now, this one confused me as well. Unless I look a lot more like a Nihonjin than I used to -- and I think that the first part of this post would belie that -- I can't think why she'd be surprised to hear me speaking English there. I'm far from the only foreigner in town, hell, I wasn't even the only foreigner crossing the street at that point! (Lots of English speakers in the city tonight. I don't know why)

All in all, kind of a surreal day today.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

A brief note on the new front page:

The haiku on the front page sounds like this: "Harusame wo ki ga fukaku nomi hana ga saku." It means something like this: "The tree drinks deep of the spring rain, and flowers bloom."

I've shown this haiku to several people at work, and have gotten mixed reactions. One teacher repeatedly asked me if I came up with this idea myself. (I did. Really!) Others look puzzled, as if I used some Japanese concept incorrectly. (Entirely possible. Maybe even likely. I'm sure that the grammar is bent all out of shape, at least.)

The picture is of Himeji Castle. I took it last year (in the summer, alas) when a few of us spent a weekend exploring after the renewer's conference in Kobe had finished.

Monday, September 01, 2003

More random notes:

On studying Japanese:

Last week marked the end of my summer intensive Japanese course at the Yuurinkan (in Kagoshima City). Despite the fact that I had to commute to the city during the hottest portion of each day, I had a blast. Much of the grammar material I had covered before, either with self-study, or with a tutor (I started studying with a tutor last October), but the review was most welcome. I can converse with people at a much greater rate of speed. Sort of.

The cultural portions of the class were a lot of fun, too. The teachers illustrated the grammar points with a number of examples you wouldn't really expect to find in a classroom. For example, we discussed sequential listing of actions by learning how sho-chu (a fairly potent alcoholic beverage) is made. This was followed by taste testing. . .

We spent a class period discussing onomatopaea, which Japanese has far too much of, by examining its use in manga. We learned about cooking terms by making curry in class. (Japanese curry is at once the same and different as curry from anywhere else in the world. . . ) We tried our hand at haiku (which is actually easier to write in Japanese, due to the fact that you can have more words within the 5-7-5 syllable structure. Of course, for me, this is offset by the fact that I don't know all that many Japanese words). We spent one class playing Monopori, and another playing I-Go. (I sucked at both.)

Minami-Nippon Shimbun

One of the more interesting things we did was visit the Minami-Nippon Shimbunsha (South Japan Newspaper Company). I had never visited a place like this before, so I found it quite amazing. At one point, we saw a display of various printing technologies of the past 100 years. (The Minami Nippon Shimbun has been in business under various incarnations since the 15th year of Meiji, over 120 years ago.)

Seeing the (pre-digital) printing methods that were in use 20-30 years ago was very interesting. Things like those big curved metal plates that had to be melted down and re-created every day. (It all seems so much easier now!) I was also impressed at the sheer numbers of those little typesetting thingies. I remember doing hand-typesetting back in junior high school, and being annoyed at the big tray with 52 slots for all the letters, upper- and lower-case, plus 10 slots for numbers, and a bunch more for punctuation and blanks. Now, for typsetting in Japanese, you need all the hiragana and katakana (that's about 140), plus a buttload of kanji (Chinese characters, around 2000 of which are designated "everyday use"), plus a tiny set of kana to be used as furigana, which are used to show the pronunciation of more obscure kanji. The tray for typesetting in English took up a whole desktop; the Japanese typesetting set was more the size of a kitchen table.

And then they showed us the printing complex. Paper goes in on the ground floor, gets fed through the ceiling into a three-story room of printing equipment, and pops out as newspapers at the other end. Totally cool.

More later....