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Part XXIII   Potpourri

March 30, 1999

First, since I know you have all been waiting with bated breath, I have an update on the disciplinary problems and such. I finally had a meeting with the head of the board of education, and it seems that he agreed with me the whole time, and supported my not going back that school until next school year (which begins April 12). However, it took him two full weeks to tell me this, and until we actually sat down and had the meeting he was so stern-faced and brusque that I had to assume he was angry with my actions. Also, I was in the office, less than 20 feet from him, everyday for the two weeks following the incident, and yet he claimed that for those two weeks he did not have 20 minutes free in which to talk to me. Yeah, right.

 Instead, on the first day back at school (a different school), my supervisor called me and said that the head of the BOE wanted to meet with me that day. Not surprisingly, I was a bit irked. Especially since it was pouring down rain and I had to ride my bike and I showed up at the city office dripping wet and pissed. Nevertheless, the meeting went well. I think that it was simply a matter of saving face, something which is very important here. If he had come to me while I was in the office, it would have looked like I was in the position of power. Instead, I had to come to him, as it should be (I guess).

 So, I will try to go back to that school around the middle of April, and we will see how it goes. I know that almost half of the teachers who were at that school have been transfered to other schools, and experienced teachers from other schools have been brought in. I hope that will help solve the problem, but I have to say that they seem to prefer the pound of cure to the ounce of prevention.

Anyway, I have not written in quite some time, and there are two events that definitely deserve mention. One is the junior high school graduation I went to (not at the problem school, of course), and the other is a party I went to where I met ministerial level diplomats from almost every Asian country and taught them to sing drinking songs.

 The graduation ceremony in Japan is very different those I have attended in America. It is NOT a joyous event. It is an extremely serious event in which most of the graduating students (and some of the teachers) cry. Also, it is largely a silent ceremony, with almost no clapping or cheering. A very somber atmosphere, without a doubt.

 First, after the teachers, representatives from the Board Of Education, first and second grade students, and parents of the graduating third grade students were seated and quiet, the third graders entered the gym in a single file line, separated by gender and class (that is, classes 3-1, 3-2, and 3-3, each of which have about 35 students -- of course each school is a different size). Everything in the schools is separated by gender -- boys take industrial art, girls home economics; even the gym classes are same-sex only. When teachers hand back papers, all the boys get theirs first, then the girls. It is not surprising, then, that the genders are split during graduation, too. Also, very few parents come to graduation. It is held in the middle of the day on a Friday or Monday, so only parents who do not work can attend. The same is true of PTA meetings -- only the non-working homemakers can participate. The PTA doesn't actually do anything, anyway. Education in Japan is not considered the parents' responsibility, but rather the responsibility of the schools. Of course, this is only junior high graduation, but high school graduation is also on a weekday, so few parents can attend.

 OK, the ceremony.

 First, there was an opening ceremony. EVERYTHING in Japan has an opening and closing ceremony, usually consisting of a short speech announcing the event and date. Then, speeches were given by the vice-principal, principal, a representative of the board of education, a representative of the PTA, a student, the student's dog, the groundskeeper's assistant, one of the chairs, and probably a few other things which I forgot. Most of the speeches were given at the podium on the stage, but the student had to give the speech in front of the podium, facing away from the audience and towards the principal, who was standing behind the podium. All of the speaches were beautifully prepared on special Chinese rice paper, old-style, and didn't seem to have much content. One teacher told me that most of the speeches are exactly the same every year.

 After this, the name of each student is called -- first the boys, then the girls, of course. They stand up, bow to the representatives from the BOE, bow to the teachers, walk onto the stage and stop in front of the podium, face the principal, bow very low, and with both hands accept the diploma from the principal, who also bows. It is a very strict ritual. In fact, I think ritualized is the wrong word to describe this ceremony, indeed any ceremony in Japan. Rather, the ceremonies, as well as many other aspects of human relations, are stylized. Every kind of ceremony or greeting has reached its logical extreme in form. It is only recognizable for what it is because it is so obviously that.

 This is very hard to explain. OK, when a student enters the teachers' room, he or she must say "I'm sorry to disturb you." Upon leaving, the student must say "I'm sorry I disturbed you." Yet, the students don't mean it, and the teachers don't listen to it. It is simply the stylized greeting that the students use to announce their presence. But it doesn't actually MEAN anything -- it just has to be said, every time. The same is true of the graduation ceremony -- everything is painfully strict, ceremonial, and slow, but only because people expect it to be, and because it was done that way last year. It is tradition that the graduation is a sad event (although I don't know why), so every single girl and more than half the boys cried. Ten minutes after the ceremony they were laughing and happy, but during the ceremony itself they were supposed to behave a certain way, so they dik. It's stylized, like how in early art the human eye was ALWAYS drawn the same way, no matter what angle the person was drawn from [sic]. Human relations are ALWAYS performed the same way, no matter how you actually feel about the person. The speeches given at graduation are ALWAYS the same, no matter who is giving them or to whom they are given.

 After the ceremony, the teachers formed a sort of receiving line and the students filed past to say a final fairwell to the teachers. Some of the girls were crying so hard that they could barely walk (although, again, five minutes later they were laughing). Then, all of the students went to their homerooms for about 15 minutes to organize the next event, which is the ceremonial final exit from the school. The first and second graders lined the stairs and made a human tunnel, someone turned on a sappy popular song, and the graduates walked out of the school and directly into the gym, for the picture session. For the picture, all of the boys had to have one hand on each leg, flat, and all the girls had to cross their hands in their laps, just so, very stylized. The photographer spent at least 25 minutes adjusting every single person's hands until they all looked exactly alike. Of course, all of the students had their own cameras, and the informal pictures afterwords were more fun. Especially since most students wanted a picture of themselves with the funny looking gai-jin -- I posed for at least 70 individual pictures.

OK, enough graduation -- now the party. During the first week of March, the APO, or Asian Productivity Organization, had its annual meeting. I have no idea why it was in Kiryu. Ministry level diplomats from 22 Asian countries came to Kiryu to discuss the development of small industry in Asia. At the end of the week, a party was thrown for them, and all of the foreign, English speaking residents were invited. The entire conference had been held in English, because that was the only common language of the representatives.

So, I went. I even wore a suit. The first guy I met was a representative from Fiji whose first question was "is there any beer?" He had at least 10 of them, and that's only when I was watching. He invited me to come to Fiji and stay with his family, but I doubt he remembers it. I also met people from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Phillipines, India, Mongolia, Thailand, Iran, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and some others that I forgot. Most of the people were very nice, and the guy from Nepal (Rajeshwar P. Pant) invited me to come and visit. And he was sober. He is the director of the Small & Cottage Industry Development Board of His Majesty's Government of Nepal. Cool. He said I could stay at his house in Kathmandu and his son would show me around. He also said that most people in Nepal speak English. If anything actually comes of this, it could be just awesome.

 After about an hour, a Japanese woman sang three traditional Japanese songs, which I thought was a nice touch. Then, the guy from India, who was more drunk than the guy from Fiji, got up and sang a traditional Indian song without being asked. Then, since there wasn't really much else to do, one of the organizers decided it would be a good idea if everyone got up and sang a traditional song from their own country. Most of them were pretty cool, too, especially the Mongolian song. One of the Iranian guys was a bit out of touch, though -- rather than sing he decided to tell us a joke. And not just any joke, but a racist joke about Japanese people, based on the Iranian opinion that all Japanese people look the same. Real smart. Most people laughed politely, but it was a strained moment. The singing was fun, though, especially because the completely bombed Indian guy (and remember that he is the Undersecretary for Economic Developmet or something like that) accompanied everyone on an overturned trash can that he used as a drum.

As they started to run out of Asian countries, however, somebody noticed that there were four Americans in the room and had the bright idea that we should sing, too. We all vocally objected, since this was, after all, the ASIAN Productivity Organization, but to no avail. We couldn't think of a song, though. I mean, everyone was singing these traditional songs representing their own cultures, but what is a "traditional" American song? Nobody wants to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" in public because it's so hard, and who knows all the words to "America the Beautiful"? (OK, maybe you do, but how about the second verse, smarty?) But one of us (NOT me, I assure you) finally thought of an easy song, one which we could teach them to sing quickly so that they could participate. And, we thought that it represented American culture very well. What was it? Well, isn't it obvious? What else do you use to serenade Asian diplomats at a conference in rural Japan but "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"? Fortunately, we started at 10 bottles and went down from there, singing in a round, but in retrospect 10 was still too many. We should have started with 2 or 3 bottles. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there was no video camera. The Indian guy liked it, though -- at least, he kept on beating that trash can throughout the performance.