Thursday, 24 April 2014

leaving japan and musings on the jet programme

This week was my first full schedule with the new first years, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. With the end of our contracts a little over 3 months away, everyone is posting about whether their decision to leave or stay was the right one, and I totally understand that.

Starting afresh with a new group of students, knowing what I’m doing, and having experience behind me, the difference between these self introdctions and my ones in August is marked. Recently, waking up in the morning, the way I feel before teaching has tipped to the excitement outweighing the nervousness. It’s not even that the content of my lessons has changed that much, more that I can now feel at ease in front of a 40-strong class; not feel compelled to fill an unsure silence; exert a little more authority and know more instinctively what will and won’t work off the paper lesson plan. Because of the difference in the academic calenders between Japan and English-speaking countries, it makes sense for us to arrive here one semester into the school year. But I’m only realising now why they say two years gives you the best experience, and it’s undeniably better for the kids. 

Crazy good drawing a student just casually did one night for their school-trip book cover

In terms of being in Japan, staying for a year makes sense for me and I’ll have accomplished my original goals. I’ve traveled all over the country; gained a measure of understanding of Japanese society and culture; tried teaching; kept up writing; got experience with public speaking and leading that I never had at university; become more self-sufficient; learned how to communicate with just about anyone regardless of age, background or language; lived as a minority; and become totally financially independent straight after graduating.

Nevertheless, I think two years is optimal for real job satisfaction.

If the JET Programme and the Japanese Ministry of Eduction is serious about improving English teaching in schools, they need to focus on quality and not quantity of ALTs (which seems to be the plan.) In real terms, I think that might mean a 2 year minimum contract, and more training both for us and the JTE’s who will team teach with us. And although the Programme seems pretty good at finding the right placements for participants, they also need to do a lot of streamlining. I’ve heard so many stories of JETs being paid to sit at their desks for weeks on end – making bulletin boards, writing newsletters, studying Japanese and eventually knitting and watching movies. Great for those who want a gap year lifestyle while pursuing their own projects – not so great for those who actually want to teach, or for the state of English learning in Japan.

The Programme has changed a lot since its early days in the 80s, when it was just a handful of top graduates given 4+ weeks of training. It’s hard to say how long it will survive as it is, and it’s most definitely not perfect. Nevertheless, I still think ALTs have a huge part to play here, in pushing students to communicate in real English rather than memorised chunks of grammar, and in providing rare and real foreign interaction.

Yesterday I went on a school trip with the new first years to the famous Saito Burial Mounds. We climbed hills to view the vistas, wandered through a cherry orchard, and played dodgeball among the barrows. My students were relaxed, witty, unbelievably energetic. It was a perfect spring day, the likes of which I’ve only really read about. A cool wind ran over the sun-warmed meadows and the rice paddies were punctuated by tiny white trucks and old women in bonnets. The air literally smelled sweet. I’m going to miss this country so much. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

sakura season, double dates and catching waves

This week Miyazaki seems to have burst into bloom. Everywhere you look there's climbing wisteria, irises, some remaining fluffy pink cherry blossom, rapeseed, pansies and wildflowers pushing their way through hedges, pavements and crumbly walls. It's just as well since most of the sakura has faded, and I miss gazing at it out the staffroom window.

It seems like Gabby brought spring to Miyakonojo, as he first week of his visit coincided wonderfully with the cherry blossom. If you're reading this from back home you might be wondering, why this obsession with blossoms?! Well, it's kind of a big deal here. They appear and fade within around a week, moving up the country in a slow wave and prompting special weather forecasts, much like Wimbledon does for the UK. Japanese people hold hanami ('flower viewing') parties, where they enjoy picnics, yakiniku (barbecue) and booze under the trees. At night they string up paper lanterns and continue the fun. The short life of the flowers encapsulates an important part of Japanese cultural tradition concerned with the transitory and fleeting nature of life, beauty and happiness. 

It was pure torture sitting at my desk watching sakura drift away on the breeze, but we had several jaunts to Miyakonojo and Mimata parks in the evenings. 

I was really happy to be told that this picture made it to the front cover of AJET Magazine! 

Mini hanami for two

This is the view I had to resist all week at school! 

Of course, when the weekend came round it was unrelentingly rainy. My favourite Miyaknojo husband and wife duo suggested a Miyazaki road trip in spite of the weather, so we headed to Udo Shrine up the coast. 

It's build into the cliffside and caves near Miyazaki, and the stormy weather was actually rather fitting. The shrine is dedicated to the father of the first Emperor of Japan.

Drinking the water that drips from the cave walls is said to be lucky for couples: perfect location for a double date! 

We did our best to throw these ceramic undama into the target above for good luck (men throw with their left to make it fair!)

Something spooky happened to this admittedly inappropriate selfie, taken in the shrine's mirror... what's that on my head?!

The next day we got up bright and early to meet Carlos sensei and his friend for a private surfing lesson! Luckily for me, and disappointingly for everyone else, the waves at Aoshima were pretty calm. Gabs turned out to be a dark horse and stood up several times, while I made do with basically boogie boarding and splashing round. I really want to try it again though, it was a much warmer and less terrifying morning than I'd anticipated!

Before heading up to Beppu, Carlos took us to the best chicken nanban place in the city for lunch. 

I think our faces give the verdict on the food.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

gaijin invasion of an ume matsuri

Way back in February we had a national holiday and, as is my wont here, I took up a complete stranger on their extremely kind offer of a day’s traditional Japanese culture. A bunch of ALTs from around the prefecture met at a tiny town called Kiyotake to try on kimono and enjoy the new plum blossoms (ume) at a mini traditional festival (matsuri). In Japan, people like to talk about the weather and the changing seasons lmot as much as Brits. Each passing month appears to be marked by a special produce – cherry blossom themed candy was this March’s speciality.

We gathered in a large hall, along with several families of other foreigners, and were helped on with our kimono and obi. In actuality it was kind of a cross between a yukata – the simple, one-layered, thin-material worn in summer- and a real kimono, which is thicker like the layer we wore, but includes many complex layers of material and padding.

Somewhat restricted, we slowly made our way to the matsuri, which of course kicked off with all of us displayed on stage and asked questions about our origins! As I may have mentioned before, the population here is 99% Japanese. This means that any foreigner outside of a big city is often de facto a local celebrity, and people will unabashedly stare at you.

At best, they will pepper you with questions about your country and your opinion of Japan; invite you randomly to their home for dinner and parties; leave their shops to accompany you places if you’re lost; explain things to you slowly; and treat you like an honoured guest. I appreciate all this very much, even if I feel I don’t deserve such special treatment all the time. At worst, they cross to the other side of the street on sight or give you the evils (I’m looking at you, Miyazaki grandmas); prefer standing in a choc-a-bloc rushhour bus to sitting next to you; fall off their seat in surprise every time you use chopsticks or a Japanese word; and ask very personal questions about your religious and political beliefs, how much your possessions cost, your exact relationship status, etc.

Living here, you are generally excused almost any faux-pas or silly mistake by virtue of being a foreigner, and so you kind of oscillate between trying to disprove assumptions by integrating, and just doing "gaijin smash" and lazily taking advantage of your perceived special status! I think that this ‘free pass’ results partly from necessity and from genuine consideration, of course, but also perhaps partly from the assumption that foreigners could never possibly understand, integrate, or conduct themselves like anything but a thrashing fish out of water. This assumption may not seem particularly problematic until you imagine applying it to Japanese living in the UK.

But, this is only one side of the coin – the other is tremendous kindess and forbearance – in a country still quite unused to the foreigners. Despite the cliched image of the Japanese tourist, leaving the country to go on holiday is still pretty uncommon here. I’m only beginning to learn about Japanese history, but it was still illegal to leave Japan until 1868, and in the preceding couple of centuries no foreigner was to enter on pain of death – so it’s little wonder that immigration and gloabalisation works a little differently here.

I say all this not to detract from the perfect day or from my experience generally in Japan, but to give a balanced picture of what it’s like to live here. I have zero problem with showing off on stage in a kimono and receiving applause for existing! I’m sure most ALTs will take all these things for granted, but perhaps not the people reading back home!

After our moment in the limelight, we shuffled off to enjoy yakisoba, tea ceremony, archery (called kyudo), and of couse, the ume! (Sakura are the famous cherry blossoms that come later in the year, while ume are the smaller fore-runners.) We also twitnessed the talents of a group of precocious pre-teens shake their thang to Beyonce. The spring sun was bright and warm as we drove back through the snow-capped mountains.

This woman was a kimono-folding powerhouse! 

Waiting for tea ceremony to begin

Getting involved with some pounding