Japan seems to be fascinated with creepy baby mascots. Just look at Kewpie, a doll originating from Germany that is now the mascot for a popular Japanese mayonnaise. But creepiest of them all, I think, is Milton. Milton is the uni-browed, crazy-eyed mascot of a (I’m assuming) baby bottle disinfecting solution. His name in Japanese is pronounced “Miruton” (“ミルトン”）which, admittedly, is a little funny. What makes Milton really despicable is his insanely catchy theme song which is forever stuck in my head. I’m posting it here just so you too may enjoy the torture. Make sure you watch until the end…those eyes….
Japan prides itself on being “eco” (pronounced “echo” in Japan) and likes to boast about its chummy relationship with the environment. How, then, do you explain the tragic situation pictured above? These Petit Choco Pies were on sale at my local grocery store. I saw the word “Petit” and thought to myself, “I’m about to get ripped off.” Indeed I was. There are eight tiny, delicious, individually wrapped pies in this huge package. Every time this kind of thing happens, I really appreciate Japan not assuming that I’m going to rip all these little packages open in one or two sittings. That’s sweet, but false.
Almost all snack packages in Japan are like this, even cookies. Individually wrapped, mostly air, and expensive. Why!?!?! Imagine if your Chips Ahoy cookies were all individually wrapped. That’s crazy! I suppose that a society obsessed with giving individually wrapped snacks as gifts feels the need to do this to all their food. But, what if I’m just stuffing my face at home and I don’t want to share? Well, this society is even more obsessed with being thin. Like whoa. It’s much, much worse than the U.S. I guess that one tiny choco pie is supposed to be enough.
I wish this problem was confined to snacks, but it’s everywhere. When you go to the grocery store and buy food along with household items, the cashier will put the non-food items in a separate bag that is taped up before putting it in another bag with your food, which is also taped. At the supermarket, peaches and other easily bruised fruits come individually wrapped in a kind of styrofoam stocking. Even bunches of bananas come in sealed plastic bags!
In addition to packaging, there are so many other examples of mindless waste that I see everyday. When I buy food at a convenience store, it’s just assumed that I want 3 spoons, a large straw, and a pair of chopsticks thrown in my bag until I object. There’s a vending machine full of disposable cans and bottles on almost every corner. And let’s not forget the mountains of office paperwork as well as reliance (still!) on fax machines. It’s all so wasteful!
Freeze yourself all you want in the winters in the name of “eco,” Japan. I’m not sure it counteracts the mountains of plastic waste that is being produced in this country. I realize my home country has its own problems, but this packaging thing is out of hand! Stop the madness!
On a related note, I have given up plastic (PET) drinking bottles for the year thanks to a powerful, tear-inducing video that has changed my life. If you’ve never heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, now’s the time to learn. You can watch the video here. Also, in an effort to reduce my overall plastic consumption, I’ve been following this blog, which is written by a woman who has almost completely given up plastic. She’s so inspiring. Please take a look!
Did you know that the manhole covers in every town in Japan are different? Well, now you do! If you don’t know what town you’re in, just look down. Each cover has the city’s name and elaborate pictures of the it’s famous points. Some are even colorful! I encourage you to Google image search “manhole covers Japan” to see what I mean. If I had had the forethought to do it, I would have taken pictures of the manhole covers in every town that I have visited in Japan. Oh well. I’ll leave that project to someone else!
Okinawa November 2012, a set on Flickr.
This post is WAY late, mostly because I needed a new way to upload lots of pictures to this blog. So, please enjoy this Flickr album of our Okinawa trip!
Brace yourselves for a long manifesto full of woe!
Japanese students consistently outscore their American counterparts on standardized tests. Let me tell you why: education in Japan is all about tests! Just memorize what’s in the book and pass the test. That’s it. Good for international test scores, but overall, bad for education. Rote-learning has its place when memorizing important mathematical formulas, historical dates, or the periodic table. But, critical thinking and personalization of the subject is what generates real learning.
Obviously, standardized tests are a big point of contention in America, too. My second language education (French) was all about the grammar-translation method, too. So, I’m not saying my home country has it all right. But, when I think about my best academic memories from high school, I think about all those projects we had to do. We had to invent a self-sustaining life form in Biology class. We developed our own government and laws in Economics class. We made campaign t-shirts for our favorite characters in “Animal Farm.” We turned “Macbeth” into a hilarious comic book. We studied “Siddhartha” by taking meditation walks around the school. We invented our own restaurant menus in computer class so that we could learn fancy graphics. We made a hilarious comedy video about the animal kingdom. And you know what? I clearly remember all those things. I really studied them, gained interest, and interpreted them in my own way. I’d like to thank all the teachers who made us do those crazy projects and challenged us to go beyond what we were being fed from the board of education. That’s the goal of education: not telling your students what to think, but teaching them how to think for themselves.
Apparently, that concept is all but lost here in Japan. If you ask a Japanese student to give their opinion or ask them to question what’s in their textbooks, you will receive the most uncomfortable silence you’ve ever heard. Sometimes, if you let them bounce ideas off a partner and then beg them a little, they will give their opinion. Interestingly, though, all their opinions tend to be similar and quite parallel to the text. However, it’s not their fault. They’re not taught how to think outside of what’s spoon-fed to them. If it’s not in the textbook, it’s not important.
This has always bothered me about teaching in Japan, but a recent series of events caused my blood to boil over the topic. When I first came here, I took it slow. I used the textbooks (though they said I didn’t have to) and I looked to the Japanese teachers for advice and guidance while still teaching in an open, communicative way. As time went on, I could see the holes that I needed to fill–my purpose here. I was here to get students interested in English, to have them use it as a living language and thereby increase their confidence in using English. So, by the second semester, I devised a brilliant term of lessons that taught my students how to communicate with me on the most basic level. Classroom English, parts of speech, syllables, tenses—very basic stuff. We incorporated point cards, class point jars, classroom English posters, the whole nine yards to really get them speaking. It worked! Now, they can ask me how to spell words. They can understand when I tell them that their sentence needs a verb or that their word should only have 3 syllables. Bottom line: we can communicate. I don’t like to brag on myself, but it was brilliant.
After that, I wanted to pump up their confidence. The last two semesters have been focused on three projects dependent upon grade and ability: performing an English drama, creating an English newspaper, and peer-to-peer teaching of English grammar points. At first, I found that students resisted this style of learning because it’s active and therefore “hard.” Passively listening to a lecture and memorizing a book are the easy ways out. But, as time went on, they really owned their work and took pride in it and themselves, which was the point. A true feeling of accomplishment cannot be attained by passiveness. The projects weren’t perfect and they had their high and low points, but overall, they were successes. I saw shy students open up. I say rowdy students focus. I found more and more English being spoken to me and among students. I witnessed some really creative ideas. The students far surpassed my expectations, which were already quite high. I learned a lot and they did too. I feel that I did really good work. When other ALT’s visit my school, they are surprised at how unafraid and open my students are to English. I can’t say that’s all because of me, but it has a lot to do with me. I’ve worked hard at gaining their trust and teaching them outside the box.
This semester, my final one, I planned to teach them that they could use English to create beautiful things: creative writing. Poetry and fiction, all the wonderful English things that make my humanities-loving heart pitter-patter. I worked for weeks on the lesson plan and worksheets. When it finally came time to seek advice from my supervisor, the hammer fell. Hard. My freedom was taken away. Apparently, everyone knew it was coming but me. Someone somewhere (and I think I know who) decided I wasn’t a “real” teacher worthy of classroom time. The new principal (the “who”) wants the school to increase its test scores (which will increase his salary, I’m sure). So, I’ve become every ALT’s nightmare: a tape recorder. I will stand by quietly in class and students will repeat words after me. If we have extra time, I can ask them some questions about the text.
For me personally, It has been a slap in the face, as if to say, “You’ve failed and we don’t respect you.” That’s exactly how I feel. I have been demoted and my job has been taken away. Everyone knows it, and soon the students will too. I guess I’m glad I’m leaving in a few months. I can understand if they want to follow the book more closely. But, let me create games and activities to bring the subject alive! Something! Obviously, memorizing a text, repeating it, and taking tests will teach these kids English. It has worked SO WELL in the past. The more I travel Asia, the more I realize that Japanese speakers might be the worst at English. But, it’s their own fault and I’m not superwoman. I just hope that I have positively impacted my students’ education in some way and given them more confidence in their language abilities.
To say that I hate rote-learning is an understatement. I think it’s just plain dangerous to a child, and to a society as a whole if it’s the main means of education. Critical thinking, creativity, free interpretation, and room for error is absolutely crucial to education. I’m not confident that school systems will ever truly realize this, but I, and every educator, can dream of the day!
I’m a big fan of the changing seasons. Fall is my favorite time of year, but spring is a close second.
Is spring better in Japan than back home in Tennessee? Yes. Yes it is. But, why exactly? Gunma and Tennessee are quite similar in landscape, plant life, and seasonal patterns. So why am I (and the world) smitten with spring in Japan?
The first reason, I believe, is that winter here is so incredibly miserable. I wrote about that in an earlier post. Day by day, the sun stays up longer. You wear fewer layers of clothing. The snow melts. You see a daffodil. Finally, you feel motivated to do something other than crawl under your kotatsu and die. The end of winter is probably the best news of the whole year. And, it’s the best news you’ll get until autumn. (Summer has its own special breed of misery.)
The second reason is the sheer number of blooming flora. Flowers are everywhere! Some towns host special flower displays which attract eager blossom hunters. In Minakami, Norn ski resort turns into a field of over one million daffodils. Tatebayashi has one of the world’s biggest azalea displays. Even my own little town has an impressive daffodil display by the river (see picture above). The whole country explodes with color.
In Japan, I’m outside a lot more than back home. That’s reason number three. I spend so much time in my car in the U.S. I just zoom past spring without taking time to notice it.
The final reason Japan’s spring can beat up your spring is because this county LIVES for it. The daily news actually provides a daily cherry blossom forecast so that you can track when and where they’ll come! Shinto, which 50% of religious Japanese follow, is a nature-based religion. Appreciation of nature is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that you can’t escape it. Spring is nature’s peacock feathers. It shouts, “Look at me! Look what I can do!” Here in Japan, everyone takes time to appreciate this magical display of power.
So yes, my spring has been more awesome than yours. Sorry about that (not really). I highly recommend that you visit Japan at this time of year to see it for yourself.
If you’re an Austin Powers fan like myself, your first word association with this post is probably, “carnies.” But, let’s not date ourselves, okay 90′s kids?
Before coming to Japan, the only cabbage I ate was stewed and it was usually paired with a delicious pot of slow-cooked white beans (thanks, grandmother!). While that kind of simple, Southern meal is perfection, cabbage has a lot more to offer! Cabbage is frequently used in Asian cooking, so I’m learning how to cook it in many different ways.
Full disclosure: Gunma–my home in Japan–is famous for cabbage. It’s our thing, and we’re pretty proud of it.
These days, I eat cabbage almost daily. I add it to everything like Paula Deen does butter. Every morning, I eat a shredded cabbage salad with breakfast. I didn’t even like salads before I discovered cabbage salads! I also add it to all my stir-fries. Of course, I also make okonomiyaki–my favorite Japanese food–regularly (it’s a cabbage pancake). I’ve also created the pretty awesome fried tofu/cabbage concoction that is pictured above.
If you’d like to cabbage-ify your life (And why not? It’s a super food!), here’s the recipe for my Fried Tofu and Cabbage. Feel free to adjust the measurements to your liking and improvise. I cook using my mom’s “throw-things-in-a-pan” method, so all measurements are approximate and subject to change. (However, do measure the mirin…too much can really mess up a dish!)
1/4 a head of cabbage
1 pack of fried tofu, cut into chunks
mung bean sprouts
canola oil (as needed)
4 TBSP soy sauce
3 TBSP mirin
garlic and black pepper (to taste)
optional: mushrooms (especially maitake)
optional: cauliflower (I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work well)
Heat all of this together in a fry pan or wok until the cabbage is wilted, but still a bit crunchy. Serve over rice. Bam. If it’s not easy, I don’t cook it! Enjoy!
I love getting gifts. I also love giving them. Here’s my problem: obligation.
When I select a gift for someone, it’s because I want to give them something special that I think they will really enjoy. When it comes to birthdays and Christmas, if I can’t find a gift that screams, “Insert Friend’s Name Here,” I’ll opt to write them a nice note, make them something, or buy them dinner. I’m not a fan of giving gifts because I “have to” because that defeats the whole point! If my heart’s not in it, then it’s not a real gift.
I learned very quickly about the gift-giving wars when I came to Japan. When I first arrived, I was given many things and I was very grateful and showed my appreciation. However, now I realize I am in those people’s debt. In Japan, if someone gives you a gift, you must give them something back, and people give you gifts ALL THE TIME. That sounds nice if you don’t count the pressure, guilt, and financial burden that goes along with it. The guilt I feel when I receive a gift in Japan is a true testament of just how “Japanese” I’ve become! I have learned to dread them.
Here’s an example: My school’s music teacher got married. To celebrate, all the women in the office pooled money to give her a nice gift. She was very grateful and I thought, “Well, that was nice.” But, when she returned from her honeymoon, she had bought all the female teachers souvenirs whose total cost was far greater than what we gave her! What was the point? While I enjoyed the coconut soap and chocolate macadamias you brought me from Hawaii, I would have much rather you just ACCEPTED my gift!! Sometimes I feel that I can’t do anything kind for people out of the goodness of my heart. It will just make them obligated to do something for me. Giving a gift is, in a way, giving the other person a burden.
Then there are the rules. Like chocolate (even in candy bar form) shouldn’t be given to people of the opposite gender unless you have some romantic inclinations. Oops. Last year, I bought some lovely flowers for my supervisor who was changing schools. They turned out to be “funeral flowers.” Oops. I can’t buy dinner for anyone older than me (a big faux pas that I tried just last week!). And of course, you should always give nicer gifts to people of higher rank. Oiy.
Don’t get me started on “omiyage,” which means “souvenirs.” When you go on a trip, no matter how big or small (even business trips), you are expected to bring back gifts for the people you work with. In my case, that’s about 70-80 people at 3 different schools! These gifts are usually small, individually wrapped snacks. Omiyage is considered a kind of, “Sorry I was out enjoying myself while you were are work” gesture. This is why many Japanese people don’t tell their co-workers that they’re going on a trip! Japan is full of omiyage shops and it is a huge, huge business. I read somewhere that the average Japanese person spends $500-$600 on omiyage for international trips. That’s just ridiculous. When it comes to me and omiyage, I pick my battles. I only give gifts when I have to miss work. I’ll spend $30-$50 on omiyage when I go on a big trip. I’ll only give omiyage for small trips if I’m feeling especially generous. But, I’m a foreigner, so I can get away with this kind of rational thinking.
All this has been on my mind lately because gift giving season is in full swing right now. First of all, there’s Valentine’s Day where the women are expected to give chocolates to men! So much for chivalry, huh? But never fear! The guilt kicks in on White Day (March 14th), when the men must return the favor to the women who gave them chocolates. Also, March is the season when teachers change schools, retire, etc. So, don’t forget those goodbye gifts!
Honestly, I’d be pleased not to see another gift until I leave Japan. Stop the madness. Give freely and from the heart without obligation. Receive gratefully and graciously. And then, be done with it. Love, a broke, indebted American.
Tokyo, like any big city, can drain a person. Usually, by the third day there I’m dreaming of returning to my “little mountain hamlet” in Gunma. Too many people…forever meandering.
But even in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, there are little oases. My favorite part of the city is Asakusa. Many foreigners are familiar with this area because it’s the home of the famous Sensoji Temple and the spankin’ new, super-hyped Tokyo Sky Tree. Not to mention it’s the epicenter of cheap hostels.
I have to give full credit to my good friend Tim (who used to live in the area) for introducing me to Asakusa. He even taught me to ride a bike there (after I crashed into a few trees and houses, of course). Asakusa is the kind of area where busy, traffic-laden streets give way to shockingly quiet narrow roads. You’ll often see locals say daily prayers as they pass by their neighborhood temples at night. There are delicious mom and pop restaurants and hidden canal-side parks where children play. The charm of Asakusa is that it’s a REAL neighborhood where you can wander and discover at your own pace.
With the opening of the Sky Tree, I fear that Asakusa will change. More tourists will come, and the bright-lights-big-city mentality will invade this quiet place. But for now, it’s my little slice of Tokyo, and I love it.
If I had to pick my number one “love” in Japan, this is it.
A little background: I am based at an all girls academic high school and I also visit two low-level co-ed high schools each week. They are all different, but they all have their own charm. Before coming to Japan, I had primarily taught adults. This is my first venture into the world of teaching teenagers, and I just adore it.
Flashback 2008: If you had asked me if I liked children or teenagers five years ago, I would have said that I hate kids. This was despite (or because of?) working at a children’s entertainment facility for two years prior. However, no matter how much I grimaced at the idea of children, they were always drawn to me, and I was always a natural with them. I also found teenagers irritating and incorrigible, despite looking back on high school as the happiest days of my life.
But, somewhere in my old age (…my late 20′s), my heart grew three sizes, just like The Grinch.
When I first started teaching in Japan, it was really intimidating speaking to a room of forty glazed-over, uninterested teenagers. I didn’t know them, and they certainly didn’t know me. Both parties were apprehensive about each other. It took about 8-9 months before I settled into my teaching role and the students became comfortable with me. After that, magical things began to happen. The students and I formed bonds, laughed together, shared stories, and really got to know each other. I fell in love. Madly, madly in love. My students are the funniest, most creative, beautiful people I’ve ever met. I care for them as if they are my own, referring to the students at my base school as, “my girls.”
Why do I love it? Well…. I have a handful of girls who come to gossip with me in the teacher’s room when all the other teachers are in a meeting. I’ve tutored and coached several students one-on-one for exams, college entrance papers, and speech contests. I’ve got a small English club who loves cooking, making crafts, talking about boys, and playing scrabble. I’m constantly accused of having a boyfriend every time I’m seen with another male. My groceries are always inspected by students at the local supermarket. Sixteen year old boys have professed their love for me and asked me on dates (totally normal here in Japan), to which I politely declined. I’ve talked with a boy whose dream is to drive Route 66 in a big, old-fashioned car (he’s a big Elvis fan). I’ve written notes (high school style) back and forth with a girl who was too shy to talk to me in person. I’ve received endless letters, handmade gifts, and snacks. I’ve taught (and been taught) funny slang words that have become inside jokes. We’ve sang together, we’ve taught each other dances. Endless hugs, smiles, laughs, and joy. The list goes on and on.
I can’t even begin to list my favorite one-liners from these kids. They are hilarious.
It’s not all a cakewalk–don’t get me wrong. Teenagers are teenagers all over the world. They can be noisy and unruly and make you want to beat your head against the wall. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and count to five so you don’t lose it. But for every bad class, there are a dozen good ones, so the bad times are quickly forgotten.
Ten days ago, I attended my main school’s graduation. I knew it would be sad because it was sad last year. However, it was harder this time since I had developed even stronger bonds with this class. I held it together for the ceremony, but the rest of the day was an emotional roller coaster spent signing yearbooks, taking photos, and saying goodbye. It was tough. There are so many big personalities that I just can’t imagine not having around. A few students in particular were hard to say goodbye to.
Aika: She’s one of the sharpest and most mischievous kids I’ve ever met. She once professed that she was, “Machiavellian,” and she’s right. Her love for “colorful” English words have left me rolling in the floor time after time. She’s the primary “gossip girl” that comes to me in the teacher’s room and, on her last day, we spent the whole afternoon together shooting the breeze. She had complained about school life earlier in the year, and I told her to enjoy her high school days because she would look back on them fondly one day. On graduation day she said, “Do you remember that I said I hated school? Well, I changed my mind! I don’t want to leave. I keep thinking that I’ll come here on Monday but I won’t. I’m thinking where do I go? Where do I go now?” I told her life is always like that. Not a linear path, but a constant divergence of paths to choose from. I’m excited to see where her path leads in the future.
Saki: Saki is a very sweet, light-hearted girl with an infectious laugh. She came to me for help with a college entrance requirement. She had to read an English book, “Love Story,” and then write a report about it. She had a Japanese cliff notes version along with the English book. My co-worker and I took the Japanese version away from her, put it in a desk drawer, and I told her I would create a study plan for her in English. She was shocked, but up for the challenge. At first, she struggled, translating every word. She worried about communicating her answers to me. But, after some practice and advice, she was reading and understanding the book with little help from me. I was so proud! We met after school about once a week for over 3 months. We discussed life and love and her dreams. I’ll cherish those times forever.
Mari: Mari is a hard-working, studious, over achiever with a big heart. She’s the kind of student who, when asked to write a one-page paper, writes 4 pages and turns it in early for me to check so she can rewrite it. …She reminds me of myself! She was the president of the English club and plans to teach English in the future. She has huge dreams, and I believe she can accomplish all of them if she wants. For this year’s speech contest, she wrote an original speech about bringing peace to the world. Over the summer, she came to school to practice it with me almost every day. During that time, she worked so hard and improved leaps and bounds. Also over the summer, her grandmother, who she was very close to, passed away. One afternoon, I simply listened to her share her grandmother’s memories. Later in the year, she chose to write about her grandmother’s remembrance for a “show and tell” project. When I read that first draft, I nearly cried. It was so heartfelt. On graduation day, saying goodbye to her was the hardest. I nearly fell apart. It was one of those, “I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow” kind of moments.
Just last year, I saw the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” for the first time. I got it. Really felt it. Being a teacher gives you the opportunity to see students as the really are. You care about them, and you want them to succeed. But, in the end, the circle of life wins. You have to do your best, then say goodbye and look forward to educating the next class. I can only imagine what parenting must feel life. Kudos to all you moms and dads out there.
Tomorrow I’ll go to school. I’ll be greeted by a chorus of smiling girls shouting “Good morning, Rachael!” from the baseball field. I’ll leave with a sense of satisfaction that I’ve spent all day helping kids reach their full potential. What more could you ask for in life?