Saturday, February 24, 2007

More Sera Japan and School Life

The school year is coming to a close with just a couple weeks left until the long spring brake. March is when my 3rd year Junior high school students graduate from Sera JHS and head off to various high schools across Japan. This is where the main difference in Japanese schooling lies.

In America when you go from eighth grade to a freshman in high school you just enroll and go to the school which is closest to your neighborhood. In Japan, the system is not even close. Junior high school kids (mind you only 14 years old) must take huge national proficiency tests to get a "rating" or score which will determine the type of academic high school's they can choose. Once they know their scores they can choose from a list of high schools. If they do bad on the initial test they have two more tries to score well and get into the high school they (or their parents) want. Some of my students with go off to high schools in other parts of the country, in different prefectures. Some will just bus across Hiroshima prefecture, or even take a two hour bus/train ride into the city everyday just to go to an academic or sports based high school. For the ones who can't afford such luxuries they will stay stuck in Sera and go to one of two medium academic schools. However, Sera has the best long distance running team in Japan, so this is a bonus for those who stay because Sera High stays well funded.

While others still won't even go to a high school, something unprecedented to Americans who are required by law to attend 12 years of public schooling, but since high schools in Japan are mainly private the test to get in is one of the most stressful times in a young Japanese persons life. The next real challenge comes for those who decide to go on to college and have to take the college entrance exams, a test so rigorous that it has garnered the nickname of the "hell exam" and which is the main determining factor of a young persons future. If you pass you can get into a good college and become what you have dreamed of being since you were a child, but if you fail, you get stuck in the hell of the mediocre and are forced to join society -thus the slew of everyday-men, i.e. salary men and flight attendants, the top two most popular jobs in Japan. Not because they pay well or are in anyway exciting, but because they are accessible to the everyday people.

I personally don't think its fair to base your entire future on a test score. This is something I miss about American culture -every American has a chance to make their dreams come true and do what makes them truly happy, but in Japan, you do what is expected- and if you don't make the cut, well, then society places you at the bottom of the barrel so that those who work insanely hard can enjoy their time at the top -only until the massive stress of having to perform causes them to jump in front of a train. It's not a perfect system, and to many of my Japanese friends the trick is to outsource and find better jobs in foreign industry and exchange. Yet many Japanese don't have these options, or knowledge about the options, and get stuck in low paying office jobs stuck under florescent lights ultimately wanting to pull a "Joe vs. the Volcano" all over again. Welcome to Japan!

I just wish my students better luck in their futures! And I hope by teaching a young generation of Japanese English, they will hopefully have more options for their future, including new exciting international ventures.


A week or two back my area of town had a small bonfire celebration. It gives the people something to do. Since Japan has strict anti-gun laws, when people get bored they can't just go out and kill anyone they want. Not in Japan. Instead, people are forced to find fun things to do, such as socializing peacefully, celebrating, and having barbecues among other hobbies to fill their free time with.
Just to give you an idea of the scale, look at me in the picture. Yeah, the bamboo is that tall, amazing huh? Now picture an entire forest of bamboo and ancient trees, and that's Japan!

Since this is the year of the 'Razorback' Warthog according to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, there was a large Ino-shi-shi (warthog in Japanese) float erected out of bamboo and paper mache. It was fun to watch burn.

Sayaka and I walked two blocks from my apartment to where the bonfire, or dondo in Japanese, was and we watched the dry bamboo go up in a glorious blaze of fire! The whole thing only took about thirty eight seconds to evaporate in a blaze of ash and smoke. The bamboo gets so hot that the moisture left in its hollow shell (bamboo is like a wood pipe -hollow on the inside) caused the bamboo to pop and explode with ear deafening force. It sounded extremely similar to mortar fire and gunfire going off. Ever heard a tank fire a round? Same sound (I can only imagine what a bamboo forest fire would sound like). Very frightening but none of the little kids seemed to care. Speaking of which, I was the 'showpiece' as many of my young elementary students decided to play with me and show me off to their parents. Look out Vick Sensei! They're on to you.

One of my favorite Japanese foods is Zenzai, or sweet red bean soup with moist rice dumplings. It may sound gross but it really taste good. Many gajin (foreigners) don't like this extremely 'Asian' tasting food, but it is one of the traditional Japanese treats that I thoroughly enjoy. When the old couple who were making the rice dumplings, or mochi in Japanese, they decided to have me pound the mochi too. The mochi much be kneaded into a dough-like gelantenous goo with a big wood mallet, which is really fun, but also tiring.

All and all, it was a fun day. These types of holiday events are one of the many reasons I love Japan so much.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Back on Track!

My Internet was sporatic for two weeks, working off and on, and only at dial up speeds although I'm technically using the fastest ADSL. Finally the climatic event of catastrophic Internet failure finalized itself when my router stopped working... not an uncommon experience, but since I use wireless it clinched the deal with a dead stop to IP access.

So I dug out my old lan-cable and I plugged straight into my modem from where I am now back up and running by a hardline... until I can order another router. Luckily I was able to hook back up at full ADSL high speed, and am ever greatful after three weeks of email withdrawl syndrome.

Here are some more pictures from Japan! Enjoy.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Miyajima Island and Itsukushi Shrine

Miyajima Island and the famous Torii Gates in Japan. Itsukushi Jinja (Shrine) is one of the most beautiful and well maintained Shinto holy sites in all of Japan.

The red gates sit out at sea, in the ocean, and luckily survived the Hiroshima bombings of WWII (Miyajima is just a mere 17 kilometers away from central Hiroshima City). The gates themselves are a image of spiritual cleansing and also a welcoming beacon calling out to travelers to come and pray.

Every year in Japan Miyajima Island is a central focus on tourism and cultural festivities. Fireworks festivals to grand New Years celebrations are held on the island along with any numerious religous traditions and events and is one of the key historical sites in all of the country. If anyone desires coming to visit Japan then Miyajima is definately a must see. After checking out all the island offers you can head back into Hiroshima for a night on the town, catch a bite to eat a any one of a myriad of famous restaraunts, or do some quality shopping. Japan is fun!

Snow in Japan and Why I miss central heating!

In Japan the snow hangs off of the Japanese architecture in a very beautiful and serene sort of way. Little rooftop dragon ornaments poke their heads out of the snow blanket while crisp snow crunches under your foot steps break the still air. Standing against the granduer of amazing landscapes, the chill of the winter breeze like the ones talked about in old Buddhist poems, the white puff of breath and the Japanese mountain-scape harkens back to a time when the ancient samurai guarded the snowy mountain passages and roamed Japan throughout all four seasons. Just thinking that a Japanese home has walls such thin walls and the inside doors are merely paper makes one reconsider the term "toughing it out for the winter."

Jump ahead several hundred years and not much has changed in the way of Japanese architecture. To be quite blunt, while the Japanese have strived to push the external technology to new heights they have not yet refined their 'internal' or 'comfort' technologies. People in Japan still prefer to wash their dishes by hand, even though most houses are fully equipped with ready and willing 'washing machines'. Yet being an English teacher in Japan can often times be a leg numbing, finger rubbing, nose sniffling, bone chilling experience. With all of their modern day wonders the Japanese still haven't figured out the basic concept of 'central heating'. In Japan houses and schools do not have insulation, they don't have double pained glass, nor do they even have heat.

Immediately there are two concerns: first the Japanese would hate to ruin this particular 'Japanesey feeling' of the old traditional ways, the old archaic notions of 'toughing it out' like the samurai ring beautiful to the Japanese ear (even at the extend of freezing to death), and secondly they will be quick to remind you of energy conservation. I myself find both answers hard to acknowledge when 90% of my students are either too awfully cold (in the winter) or to darn hot (in the summer). Half the time they are freezing or sweating and since I have come here there has rarely been a steady 'comfort' level in the class room. Of course there is the rare lovely day when the birds sing, the breeze is sweet, and all is well... but in the mountainous regions of mid to upper Japan... central heating, in my humble opinion, is a must.

The main reasons are obvious, students comfort levels would be higher, they'd be less focused on staying hot or cool and more focused on class (well maybe not always, but at least the distraction of constantly having to stay warm would be eliminated). Also, as far as energy conservation goes, I don't think that chugging away petroleum to use small gas heaters to heat twelve or so rooms in a few dozen schools, not to mention a few hundred thousand nationwide, is all that energy efficient. Not when ALL of the schools are made of concrete and single pained glass windows, most of which don't shut all the way and are unsealed. But don't try and tell the Japanese how to 'modernize' their living style... to them modernity has nothing much to do with national pride in being quite stubborn in their specific sense of what
exactly is 'Japanese' to them, and certain styles require different tastes. Sure, they may all wear western style suites, talk on state of the art mobile phones, and drive fancy new automobiles, on the surface they may appear 'westernized' but under all this external wear is a very singular national identity of what it is to be Japanese. They can't tell you exactly what it is, but it's walking to school in the snow and toughing it out like the days of old. I guess under Japan's high-tech guise is a samurai spirit glowing with a keen sense of what it means to live in Japan.

And although I may not always agree with it, I sure do admire it. It’s about having a sense of tradition. It is this very sense of tradition which adds to the richness of life in Japan. It is something both old and new, something which is always changing on the surface, but remaining ever the same at the centre -at the very core. It is both beautiful and enticing. And for anyone who's lived in Japan, well, you either love it or hate it... but the impact is always profound.