Category Archives: Education

The Nishimura Family 西村家

On Saturday night, I went to have a final dinner with the Nishimura family. I used to live next door to them in the inaka (countryside) outskirts of Nakatsu during the first year that I lived in Japan, before I moved to my current house in “downtown” Nakatsu. The two Nishimura children are named Akari and Yuu. We would hang out together once every week and play and I would teach them English and they would teach me Japanese. Mrs. Nishimura prepared a wonderful meal consisting of somen (thin cold noodles), sashimi, and Hamburg steak (a Japanese version of Salisbury steak). The girls made a chocolate cake. Yum! As a going-away present, they gave me a pair of geta (Japanese sandals) and a folding fan. Thanks so much! I hope we can stay in touch and meet again!




Filed under Cuisine, Culture, Education, Food, Japan, Japanese, Personal, Uncategorized

Inheritance 相続 – the story of an atypical day in the life of a JET

Inheritance 相続

Don’t get too excited. I didn’t inherit anything. “Souzoku” (inheritance) is just the Japanese word-of-the-day. Read on to find out why:

I had a rather atypical afternoon at work today. I spent it translating Portuguese legal documents into some sort of attempt at coherent Japanese. WHAT?!

Usually, I spend my days divided between my 3 junior high schools teaching classes, preparing lessons, meeting with Japanese teachers of English, etc. Afterall, my job title does say “Assistant Language Teacher”. However, sometimes I feel like my job description should be “Resident Harvard-educated Gaijin Expert on All Things Beyond These Sun Goddess Blessed Islands of Nippon.”

My Japanese colleagues like to ask me about all sorts of questions regarding the big wide world of “Western Culture” (everything outside of Japan it seems) or ask me to do translations of random languages. I mean, if it’s written in the Roman alphabet, it must be like English, right? um, yeah, right.

There was one Japanese English teacher who liked to try to stump me with random questions regarding obcure philosophers and social scientists that he would name-drop shamelessly. I just smiled and knodded. He never seemed to understand my answers anyway since he had trouble understanding spoken English. He also had the confusing habit of getting the words “tomorrow” and “yesterday” mixed up.

Another time, I was asked by a music teacher about the proper pronunciation of a German song the kids were singing. I don’t know any German, but he didn’t seem to believe me, so I just gave him my best attempt at a phonetic reading. That satisfied him.

Another music teacher once asked me to translate the English lyrics of “Amazing Grace” into Japanese. Hmm, yeah right. Song lyrics and poems are nearly impossible to translate, and certainly not into one’s non-native language. Fortunately, I found some translations on Google.

I was totally stumped by a teacher who wanted to know what an engraving in Classical Chinese meant in Japanese. No idea. That is like asking David Beckham for a translation of Beowulf into Spanish or asking a gringo high school student Taco Bell employee if he can decipher Don Quijote in the original.

I have managed more normal translations such as boring government newsletters and application forms with more success, but plenty of other odd stories, like the time I was asked to translate a sign for a public beach saying “No fireworks, no barbecues, no topless bathing or nudity”. Apparently, there was a Brazilian woman who used to go topless at the beach in Beppu, which I guess épatéd les japonais.

So back to the story of my unusual afternoon. I got a call from the main Education Office at Nakatsu City Hall today. They are the one’s who technically employ me, but I spend all of my time at my schools. I only go to the office once or twice a month for administrative stuff. Anyway, they asked me I could read Portuguese. I said, “yeah, well, I guess so.” I do know Spanish quite well which is quite similar and I did take an intensive semester of Portuguese back in university, but it’s been awhile.  I can still read it easily and understand conversations though.

Anyway, before I knew it, they sent over some photocopies of documents in Portuguese from the Brazilian Consulate for me to translate into Japanese. What? Although the Japanese English teachers at school obviously know English, the people in administration in City Hall don’t. The guy who delivered the documents told me that it was related to “inheritance”. That’s all he knew.

Hmm, ok. I took a look at the first two pages. They were copies of the electrical bill belonging to some Japanese guy in Brazil. What does that have to do with inheritance? Well, the next two pages were legal affidavits dealing with the death of a Japanese emigrant to Brazil who was originally from Sanko-mura, a village that is now part of Nakatsu City. Things were starting to make more sense.

His children and their spouses issued legal papers waiving all rights of inheritance in favor of the widow, who is the inheritor of 23 square meters of land in Sanko-mura.

I did the best I could translating Portuguese legalese into what I hope is coherent Japanese (not a language pair I would have ever expected to work with, and not one I am qualified for in the “real world” of translation). I am guessing that the copy of the electrical bill was just to verify the son-in-law’s domicile or something. I really hope it all works out and the widow gets her little piece of land in rural Japan or at least a fair amount of money from selling it.

Another day in my life as a JET. Fifteen days to go.


Filed under Education, Japan, Japanese, Language, Personal, Portuguese, translation, Uncategorized

Quote of the day

I came across this quote today. It pretty much sums up my own life philosophy.

“Own what you can always carry with you; know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your bag.”

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

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What is Japenglinese?!

Japenglinese is a new blogging side-project that I started. The goal of this experimental project is to assist in the mastery of Japanese and Chinese vocabulary words. Basically, this blog will function as my personal learning notebook that will chart my own personal progress in my life-long goal to master these notoriously difficult Asian languages.  For the time being, the blog will feature short entries introducing vocabulary words glossed in English, Japanese and Chinese. Special emphasis will be placed in the introduction and aquisition of Kanji/Hanzi – the thousands of Chinese characters that are used in both Japanese and Chinese.

The site also features a variety of links to free online resources for learning Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin).

The Japenglise blog is still in its infancy, so I will be experimenting somewhat with the format and the methodology. I think it would be interesting if this blog could become a collaborative effort for intermediate to advanced learners of Japanese and/or Chinese to learn advanced vocabulary. Contact me if you are interested in contributing. Comments, suggestions, study tips, as well as contributions of content will be welcome.
Check it out for yourselves:

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Aerobics + English Lessons = Zuiikin Gals

Total Physical Response!!!

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Student Teacher Demonstration Lesson

Yesterday, we had a student teacher, a university student in Education from a nearby university who is doing a week-long practicum at one of my junior high schools, teach a demonstration lesson to the first grade class (7th graders in the US). Other teachers from the school, including myself, sat in on the lesson and took notes. After school we all had a meeting with the student teacher to discuss her performance and to give our suggestions and comments.

It is funny how 3 years into the JET Programme and 6 weeks from going home, I have my first truly consultative role as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and native speaker of English. Of course, I have had carte blanche when it comes to my elementary school lessons or my adult conversation class, but when comes to teaching at junior high school, most of the time I just go along with a lesson that the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) has prepared or I am given my own block of time to present a culture lesson or to play games that reinforce language acquisition. I have been to quite a few Prefectural and Regional meetings between ALTs and JTEs, but because of the general nature of these meetings and the fact that they bring together teachers from very different school environments. Many of the lesson plans presented at these meetings are done "for show" to make teachers look good in front of their colleagues, but are too ambitious to carry out on a day to day basis at school or way too difficult for mixed-level English classes which is the norm in Japanese public (state) junior high schools where tracking students by ability is strictly forbidden.

Anyway, let's get back to the demonstration lesson given by the student teacher. I was asked to stay for a bit after school (something that has also never happened before) and we had a conference in the principal's office. The non-English teachers and the school principal had lots of comments for the student teacher about classroom management and the flow of the lesson, etc. I then gave her some tips about pronunciation and some minor points about usage and grammar. I also criticized the use of katakana (one of the Japanese phonetic syllabaries used to transcribe foreign words and which function like italics in Roman script) as an imperfect method of describing English pronunciation. Surprisingly, the principal and the English teacher agreed with me. They also believed that proper pronunciation should be taught, through the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), diagrams of tongue position and articulation of sounds that don't exist in Japanese such as the English "th" sound or the difference between "L" and "R", and/or through repeated oral practice and listening to ALTs or native speaker recordings. They also admitted that perhaps the use of katakana was a crutch used by lazy teachers, teachers who couldn't pronounce English properly themselves, or simply a way of placating students who did not feel at ease learning a "strange" pronunciation. Wow! I was surprised that they admitted all of this. They also said that according to official guidelines, the use of katakana should be avoided. But nevertheless, I see it used all the time, and we will see if it actually gets banished from English language classrooms. Katakana is the bane of every native English language teacher in Japan. It is responsible for the characteristic "Japanglish" accent of substituting "Z" for "TH", mixing up "L" and "R" and the addition of extraneous vowels at the end of words.

In terms of personal growth, I feel like I have come a long way. It felt pretty good being able to follow a staff meeting in Japanese and to give my comments and suggestions about teaching English to a Japanese teacher IN JAPANESE. I certainly feel that my Japanese language ability has come a long way in my 3 years here. I also feel a little bit disappointed that I did not have that many opportunities to discuss and consult with Japanese teachers about their teaching methods and their own English abilities. I am sure that the JET Programme has had a positive impact on Japanese students, especially in rural areas, in familiarizing them with foreigners (still a rare sight outside of major cities), as well as giving them access to native speakers as models for pronunciation and as conversation partners. However, if real English language reform is going to happen, ALTs should be helping the JTEs to improve their English and their pedagogical methods, since ALTs come and go every few years, but most JTEs will be teaching at their school district for their whole careers.

Perhaps it is because I have been here for 3 years and that they are used to working with me now that they invited me to the "backstage" of peer evaluation and discussiong of methodology. I certainly have more to add and to comment on after 3 years teaching here than I did straight out of university with only a few weeks of informal teaching experience before coming to Japan. This meeting also happened at the smallest of my three schools where there is a closer, warmer, more relaxed work atmosphere than the 2 larger schools. But maybe it is also the hierarchical nature of Japanese society that prevents JETs from having more of a say in how English is taught. In this case, I was advising a student teacher who is younger than me and less experienced, so I would be considered her senior. However, I think there may still be resistance on the part of older, full-time Japanese teachers of English to view the ALT as their equal. I think this is too bad, because as native speakers, we could certainly help the JTEs improve their English ability so they can pass it on to students. Another reason is that Japanese teachers in general work really long hours and are responsable for way more than just teaching their subjects and evaluating students. Their roles often include coaching or directing after-school club activities and the "upbringing" of students, a role that would be considered parental domain in the U.S. For example, many schools enforce curfews on their students even during holiday periods, so students can't be at the video arcade, for example after a certain time. Or they forbid students from buying snacks and drinks at convenience stores on their way to and from school. So Japanese teachers often play the role of social workers and surrogate parents, adding to their workload and stress levels, leaving little time to discuss English language pedagogy with bright-eyed, idealistic ALTs with far more freedom and free time than their Japanese counterparts.

Finally, I want to talk about a question posed by the principle to the student teacher during the meeting that I found very interesting. He asked her, "Why do you think students should study English at school? You have to know the answer yourself so you can convince the students that English is a worthwhile subject and motivate them to study it."  The student teacher thought about it for a bit and replied, "Well, I think that learning English is a practical skill for Japanese kids because there is English all around us, even in Japan, on signs, posters, product labels, etc."  This is true, I never thought of it that way, there is a whole lot of "decorative" English in Japan, but plenty of people ignore it or can't read it anyway, all the content that matters is written in Japanese anyway.  But I am sure that many students make the effort to study English just because it is required by the government and because it is part of entrance exams to high school and university.  However, the things that are taught in schools are not and should not be limited to subjects with immediate, practical utility, or otherwise schools would just focus on the the basics of "readin', writin' and 'rithmetic." 

Language learning has intrinsic value in itself.  Language is the window into other cultures and other ways of looking at the world.  The study of a foreign language also helps us to better understand our native tongues and to better understand the concept of language itself, as an abstract system of signs and symbols.  It helps us to improve our ability for abstract thinking and cognition.  Can you think of any more?  

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Japanese Educational Reform – Part 2

This quote from the New York Times article has been troubling me for the last day or so:

“Japan has become considerably self-centered, meritocratic and egotistic,” said the principal, Kenji Tamiya, 72, a former Sony executive.

Ok, so I can understand how self-centeredness and egotism are not necessarily good for a society, but what is so bad about meritocracy? Maybe there is something lost in translation here.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary:

meritocracy |ˈmɛrəˌtɑkrəsi| noun ( pl. -cies) government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability. • a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power. • a ruling or influential class of educated or skilled people. DERIVATIVES meritocratic |ˈmɛrədəˌkrødɪk| adjectivemeritocracy |ˈmɛrəˌtɑkrəsi| noun ( pl. -cies) government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability. • a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power. • a ruling or influential class of educated or skilled people. DERIVATIVES meritocratic |ˈmɛrədəˌkrødɪk| adjective

This definition of meritocracy sounds pretty fair to me. Of course, even the most egalitarian societies have their elites, but at least meritocracies mitigate the fossilization of these elite groups by allowing for some degree of vertical social mobility. Surely, a former Sony executive like Kenji Tamiya isn’t advocating a paleo-conservative return to the old four-tiered 士農工商 (Samurai-Farmers-Craftsmen-Merchants) rigid social caste system of the feudal past.

But if not meritocracy, then what? Isn’t meritocracy supposed to figure in an egalitarian society. Or does he advocate clining on to the so-called “Japanese Model” of promotion by seniority within a protective coccoon of lifetime employment? Surely even this model is essentially elitist, since it only applied to fulltime employees of certain large corporations and the government bureaucracy.  I’m sure it has benefited people like Kenji Tamiya.

Now, I find it really hypocritical that old, rich Japanese men of influence are criticizing today’s youth of being “self-centered” or “materialistic.”  After all, they belong to a line of leaders from the post-War to the present day, who have placed economic development above all else.  Not bad for getting Japan back on its feet economically after WWII, but when does this steamroller stop?  I am talking about the mismanagement and big business/government cronyism that has resulted in weak civil society, fossilized gender inequality, the continued marginalization of minorities like the Burakumin and Japanese Koreans, the castrated labor movements and lame Left, not to mention the sodomizing of the environment.  Harsh words, yes.  But how dare these old guys criticize the Japanese youth of today, when it has been young people and consumer culture in general that have made these guys rich?

Read more about it in Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

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