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Part I  Intro to Japan

August 29, 1998

I live in Japan.  More specifically, I live in the city of Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture, which is right in the middle of the main island of Honshu (Japan is made up of four main islands).  I did not choose to come here, but rather I was placed here, seemingly at random, by the JET program.  The Japan Exchange and Teaching program is run by the Japanese government, and its goal is to bring native English speakers to Japan as Assistant Language Teachers (ALT, but formerly Assistant English Teacher, or AET) to assist the Japanese Teachers of English (JTE) in Junior High Schools (JHS) and Senior High Schools (SHS).  That sounds very impressive, but really our main job is to entertain the students so that they become interested in English.  Our other job is to remember as many acronyms as possible and use them as many times as possible per day.

Anyway, I will start my story with the basics:  a physical description of my living and working space.  As you will see, there is much more to follow.

The Apartment

Karen and Robyn, both JET participants assigned to Kiryu, live in one-bedroom apartments downstairs from me.  I am on the second floor, and I have 5 rooms to myself, plus a bathroom and kitchen.  My bedroom is really 2 rooms, separated by sliding doors.  The first is a normal carpeted room with a desk, couch, comfy chair, coffee table, small closet, bookshelf, and two end-tables.  And there is still open space.  The bedroom proper is a traditional Japanese tatami room, meaning the floor is made of tatami mats (woven straw).  Its pretty, and very comfortable to walk on.  The bed is three futon mattresses, and it is very comfortable too.  Also, the tatami room has the single biggest non-walk-in closet I have ever seen.  And we still have three rooms to go (living room, dining room, spare room).  The point is, I have more space than I could possible use, and this is Japan, where everything is supposed to be cramped and crowded.

There are shelves full of books, mostly novels, left here by previous JETs, so I am set for reading material (especially if I like Danielle Steele (insert fake vomiting sound here)).  The bathroom has both a Western and an Eastern style toilet, but I think I will stick with what I am familiar with.  The apartment is about 10 minutes by bike from the city office, and is also within easy biking distance (5 - 20 minutes) of the four junior high schools at which I will be teaching.  Which brings us to:

The Office

I'm only in the office of the board of education during school vacations when there are no classes to teach.  We (myself, Robyn, Karen, and Michelle, another ALT) have to sit in the office all day and do nothing when school is not in session, which sucks, but we are getting paid for it, which doesn't suck.  Our immediate supervisor, Mr. Muramatsu, is the only person in the office who speaks English.  A few others try a little, but in general communication is difficult -- a lot of gestures and body language.  But they are all very nice and very polite.  One even invited us to go sight-seeing a few weeks ago, which was fun.  I have also found two guys in the office who play ping-pong, and they are both really, really, really good.  We played for an hour and a half and I think I scored.  Once.  However, most of the problem was that Japanese paddles are much bouncier than what I am used to, so every ball I hit travelled about 20 feet.  The table is 8 feet long.  You can see the problem.  Now that I have my paddle from home, I should do a bit better.  Interesting note:  ping-pong here is called "tayburu tenisu."  I'm not kidding.

The board of education is in the same building as all the other local government offices, and two days ago we met the mayor of Kiryu.  He owns a factory near Detroit which makes clutches and windshield wipers for the Honda factory in Ohio.  He also dresses very sharp.   I wish I had his fashion sense, but then he wishes he had my boyish good looks.

Culture Shock

Surprisingly, not a big issue.  Sure all the labels in the supermarket might as well be in Chinese, but I can buy almost anything here that I can in the States.  However, people don't understand "No MSG."   At many restaurants, there are pepper, salt, and MSG shakers.  And MSG looks exactly like salt, so beware.

I was told that people stare at Westerners on the streets -- they don't (or, at least they do very rarely).  I was told it is a very strictly formal social setting -- it isn't, really.  I was told that I had better get used to strange food that moves on my plate -- there is a KFC and a McDonald's around the block.  But there _is_ food that moved on my plate, which was pretty cool.  It wasnít not alive; it was just really thin fish flakes that dance in the steam rising from the hot food.  Those flakes keep moving for quite some time.

Everyone I have met has been unfailingly nice and polite, without exception.  And people really do try to talk to me -- where am I from, do I speak Japanese, what are my hobbies.  You'd be amazed at the range of topics we can cover using only 10 vocabulary words.  Even when you don't understand, they absolutely love it when you say "sumimasen, wakarimasen," which means "I'm sorry, I don't understand."  Even if you can only say that, people compliment you on how well you can speak Japanese.  And speaking of Japanese -- its really not as hard as people make it out to be.  The patterns of speech are very different, but once you figure out where the subject and the verb go, itís just a matter of learning the vocabulary.  Any foreign language is the same in that respect, and Japanese is easier than some because there are almost no irregular verbs.

But, OK, what do I really think about cultural differences?  The other night I flipped on the TV and watched almost all of ěConan the Barbarian.î  Dubbed into Japanese.  I quickly realized that many American movies are improved when you can't understand the dialogue.  Plus, I laughed every time the Japanese "Conan" voice spoke, because it was a really weak high-pitched voice that would have suited Michael Jackson better that Arnold Schwarz-whatever.  Were I Arnold, I would sue.  Also, I am not too familiar with Japanese yet, but it did not sound to me like the "Conan" voice had an Austrian accent; to do Arnold justice, he should have had one.

One really funny difference is that huge movie stars do commercials here that they wouldn't be caught dead doing in the US, partly because they would never get paid enough money in the States.  For example, the aforementioned Germanic-tongued Arnold does a commercial for a Japanese brand of bleach -- in English.  Now if that isn't a cultural melting pot, I don't know what is.  Move over New York.  Jodie Foster and Peter O'Toole also do some weak-ass commercials, and the funniest part is the look on their faces -- its plain as rain that they can't believe they are getting paid that much money to be in such poor commercials.  The funniest I have seen so far, however, was a print advertisement in a department store.  As I was passing the women's jewelry counter, I looked up and stopped dead in my tracks.  There, in double-life-size, was Bruce Willis, as you saw him in Die Hard -- flat-top hair, scruffy 3-4 day growth of beard, tank top with thick rivulets of chest hair spilling over the top, and that wry grin that makes him so irresistable.  Wearing women's jewelry.  May I be struck down if I am lying -- a beautiful gold necklace with a slightly twisted heart-shaped pendant nestled softly in his mat of black and gray chest hair, and a sexy gold watch, which must have had a new band put on it to fit around his wrist.  And there were about six of these huge posters encircling the jewelry counter, as if Bruce Willis was the natural role model for Japanese women to look to for jewelry advice.  Maybe they meant it to be Demi Moore, Bruce's (ex?) wife, but she couldn't make it that day.  It would certainly explain a lot if that were true, but I don't think it is.

Other and Sundry

Signatures arenít used in Japan.  Everyone gets a little stamp that they use for official stuff like opening a bank account.  Which means, if someone steals your hanko (stamper), they can get money out of your bank account with no other type of identification.  Yeah, I feel safe.  On the other hand, if you see someone stealing your stamper, you finally have the opportunity to yell "leggo my hanko" outside of prison.  (Sorry; they can't all be good jokes.  If you can think of a better play-on-words for "hanko" (or "inkan" which means the same thing), please let me know.)  On my hanko is the Japanese form of Dowty, which becomes three syllables: da, long u, ti.  Luckily, they didn't put Rafael on the hanko, since that would have come out as "Lahaelu."  Besides, I prefer Lahi.

Actually, the written language that the Japanese use most is a variation on the Chinese character set, which consists of 2,000 or so ideograms (actually more like 50,000, but only 1,945 are in common use).  Each one of them has 2-5 pronunciations and meanings, depending on the context, which make them a pain in the ass to learn.  Anyway, I asked someone what "Dowty" might be in kanji (the name for this character set), and got a pretty good result.  "Dowty" was a bit tough, but if it is pronounced "da-u-te-i"  (ěiî as in mahi-mahi), I get "calm, big-hearted (generous), stable."  Or "Calm, big-hearted, emperor," but I thought that might be a bit presumptuous.