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Part VI Nasty food and Another Assembly

September 15, 1998

They have this food in Japan called natto (pronounced nah-toe, not like the acronym for the outdated anti-commie group).  In reality, itís fermented soy beans, on top of which people put mustard and soy sauce.  I know, I know -- my mouth was watering too the first time I heard.  To be honest, I have liked nearly everything I have tried in Japan.  The exceptions have been the liver (which I don't like in the US, so no big surprise) and the fish cartilage, which they serve like shish-kabobs, grilled on skewers with chicken and veggies.  I'm not sure why they serve fish cartilage -- I would feel that it is safe to throw away that particular part of the fish.  But there you are.  Anyway, natto.  Usually, the first thing a Japanese person asks a foreigner when the subject of food comes up is whether or not they like natto.  Unfortunately, I was here for nearly six weeks before I tried it (it was finally part of the school lunch).  First of all, itís fermented.  Other words for fermented are "spoiled" or ěrotten.î  A better word is "nasty."  As the security guard from the original show called "Emergency Room," with Elliot Gould, once said about fermented eggs from the Philippines, "There ain't that much ketchup in the world."

Anyway, me being my adventurous self, I felt I had to try it, regardless of the smell and the super-sticky consistency.  Besides, all of the teachers were watching me, so I had to make some kind of effort.  So, I loaded up my spoon (they don't use chopsticks for everything here), and took a bite.  The consistency is a little like beans that haven't been cooked enough, coated with a mixture of super-glue and 10-W30 motor oil.  Then I swallowed.  Then, about five seconds later, I tasted it.  Itís all about the aftertaste.  I managed to keep a semi-straight face, but I was really thinking "this is just a joke they play on foreigners, right?"   It tasted, much to my surprise, like you would imagine fermented soy beans might taste.  I can't even describe it.  I mean, I'm not a picky eater, but this shit was RANK.  I'm also not a wimp (no snickering, you), so I took another bite, said it was OK, and went on with my meal.  The other teachers were so impressed, they brought me another helping.  I then informed them that, really, I just wasn't all that hungry that day.  And to tell the truth, after that second bite of natto, I wasn't lying.

On to the assembly.  About a week and a half ago, a student came up to me after school and asked me whether I could write a funny or interesting (the word is the same in Japanese) ten-question true-or-false quiz about myself, to be read to the student body at the assembly.  (Actually, the conversation, in broken English and even more broken Japanese, took 20 minutes.  I only report the highlights.)  I said sure, and wrote the quiz.  One of the English teachers then translated it into Japanese so everyone could understand it, and I thought my part of the process was done.  The quiz was just stuff like ěRafi enjoys SCUBA divingî or ěRafi voted for Bill Clintonî or ěRafi has been married 6 times and has 19 children.î  Basic true-false stuff that they might find interesting.

So, this morning I got to school, and I joined the other teachers on their way to the assembly, but I was told to wait at the door to the gym, as I was to be formally introduced.  I thought nothing of it, since, after all, I am a small celebrity at this school.  I have been at the same school for two weeks, and in two days I go to a different school, but more on that later.  Anyway, after about five minutes I heard someone say my name on the microphone (itís easy to hear my name, because there is no "fee" sound in Japanese).  So, I went into the gym, and I was starting to head towards the rest of the teachers when one of the English teachers pointed to the stage, towards which all the students were facing.  I looked, and there was a solitary folding chair, a microphone, and a small trophy.  I thought "oh, we are waiting for someone else," so I stopped walking.  The teacher then gestured a little more forcefully, and I realized that the chair was meant for me.  Crap.  So, incredulous, I walked up onto the stage and sat down.  Actually, before I sat down, I pointedly moved the microphone away from me, because itís not like I was actually going to say anything.  They need to give me warnings about this kind of stuff.

Lying on the stage in front of the chair were two huge posters.  One had a circle with the word "True" written inside, and the other had a big X with the word "False" written over it.  So, I was to be the arbiter of this shindig.  Then, the game started.  The way it worked was that one student read the statement in English, and another read it in Japanese.  After this, students who thought it was true remained standing, and those who thought it was false sat down.  Then, I flashed the right answer and the students sorted themselves out.  Of course, Japan is a very conformist society, so the first time about ninety percent of the student body did the same thing (they just did whatever the person in front of them did.  And they were wrong.  Whole classes did the same thing, with very few exceptions.  The entire ninth grade went out on the first question.  The students who got it right stayed where they were, while the students who got it wrong walked to the back of the gym.  Anyway, after nine questions there were four girls, all in the same class, and who were obviously not going to disagree with one another.  So, they were made to close their eyes.  Two were eliminated on the Bill Clinton question.  However, rather than having some kind of viable tie-breaker, the two girls left simply played rock-paper-scissors to decided the winner.  This game is used a lot here, and itís called "Jan-ken-pon," which absolutely does not mean "rock, paper, scissors."  Anyway, the winner had to come up onto the stage and accept the trophy, which she didn't really want.  See, this was really a game of chance, and no one is supposed to be different from anyone else, so while  in America the winner would be considered lucky, in Japan it is the opposite.  So, I gave her the trophy with a wan smile, and we both quickly and thankfully descended from the stage.  Then, I went back to the teacher's room while they finished the assembly.  From now on I am going to look for ulterior motives in every seemingly innocent request.

Also today, after school, I watched the Kendo club.  Kendo is a martial art that is so devolved from its original intention that junior high school students try their hardest and can't even scratch each other.  This is impressive, since originally kendo was sword-fighting.   Then,somebody finally figured out that swords kill people (it took several hundred years for this first step), so they traded the real sword for a sword-shaped wooden stick.  But that stick killed people, too, and even more painfully because they had to be bludgeoned to death, so they added a bunch of armor, including a chest plate and helmet.  But it still hurt too much, so they traded the wooden stick for a special bamboo stick that bends when it hits something.  But I guess some people were still complaining (probably the Japanese equivalent of goody-two-shoes), so they added more armor, until you can pretty much hit somebody as hard as you want and inflict no damage.  Personally, I think the evolution of the martial art was intended to created a release valve for suppressed aggression.  Anyway, it works as one.

The really weird part is the outfit.  First, they put on these pants that are so wide and flowing that they can easily be mistaken for skirts.  Then, under the chest plate, they wear long-sleeve cotton shirts, blue for boys and white for girls (at least, at this junior high school).  There are also finger/wrist/lower arm guards, and then the helmet.  The helmet has thick horizontal wires across the face, and at the bottom it splits off into large flapping shoulder protectors.  Basically, this entire paragraph was a lead-up to this helmet.  It is, without exaggeration, a perfect combination of the Flying Nun's habit and that steel mask that Hannibal Lector wore in ěSilence of the Lambs.î  I realized this while watching, and shortly thereafter I realized that the reason everyone had paused was to wait for me to stop laughing so loud.  The upshot of all of this is that once in this get-up, the kids just whack the hell out of each other with bamboo sticks while shouting.  If they had this  in the states, gangs would be a thing of the past.

As I mentioned above, I am soon to be going to a different school.  I am teaching at four different junior high schools, on an extremely random and arbitrary schedule.  I spend three days at the next school, four at the school after that, then back to the second school for one day, then to the third school for two days, then back the first school for two weeks, then the second school for two weeks, etc.  None of that was made up by the way.  I actually checked my calendar.  Due to the schedule, for the first time in my life I have been forced to use a daily calendar/appointment book.  Anyway, I am finally comfortable at the first school (Higashi, or East, Junior High School), and I have to move on.  But I am really having a lot of fun.  It takes so little to entertain the kids, who are really fun once they open up.  All you have to do is be a little bit goofy and they become much more lively (genki).  I don't think I would want to teach the cynical, angst-filled post-modern generation in the States, but in Japan the students have managed to preserve some of their innocence.  At least it seems that way.  I guess the big caveat is that in a survey of high school students over 25% thought prostitution was acceptable, and last year in Tokyo they had huge problems with so-called "compensated dating." Basically, high school girls would sleep with Japanese businessmen in return for nice clothes, accessories, etc.  The Japanese have a polite word for everything -- sort of political correctness gone awry.  Compensated dating is prostitution, so matter how semantically evolved you are.