I've been rethinking just how highly valued an employee I am here. In first year class at Go-chu two weeks ago, Mrs. Sugimoto asked me if I liked inoshishi nabe. She explained that inoshishi is wild boar, and that the day before the first year class had made inoshishi nabe (stew) in cooking class. I mentioned that I'd heard that people in this area also eat raw wild boar--Mrs. Sugimoto was visibly disgusted by the idea, but she asked the class if they'd heard of it, and fortunately a few of them backed me up, though only one of them had actually tasted it. He answered at length in Japanese; he didn't recommend trying it, and he added something about illness, which I took to refer to supposed medicinal properties of raw boar--perhaps he'd been made to eat it when he was sick. We went on with class. At lunch, the school secretary offered me some of the stew reheating on the stove. I took some, and Ms. Tanaka urged me to take more, since the other teachers weren't taking much because it was very fatty. I decided to eat it in the first year classroom, since they'd made it. While I was walking upstairs with Mrs. Sugimoto, she told me the principal had ordered that the students not be allowed to eat any more of it, since it was already a day old (of course, it's fine for me to eat it--but I just figured they were concerned about liability or some such thing, and that there must be no real risk). Anyway, I remembered the student's raw boar story, so I asked Mrs. Sugimoto exactly what he'd said--had he been made to eat it because it had some sort of medicinal property? Not quite. "No, he'd started to talk about the nabe they made yesterday. Three of the students got sick after eating it." No one thought to mention this to me--they just shoved a bowl at me and encouraged me to give it a try: "Hey, have more than that! We've got plenty!" I wonder if the school has some sort of insurance policy on me. I decided to risk it, and sat down with the first years--no one wanted a bite of my food anyway. It turned out that in the entire class there was only one student (a boy at the human vacuum cleaner stage of puberty) who found the stuff even close to edible. I got it down without undue suffering, but that's about as much as I can say for it. Come to Fukui for the local crab, the local soups, and the local noodles, but don't let them trick you into trying the local boar dishes. (Another legendary Takefu dish that most Takefu people haven't heard of and maybe one in a hundred has tried is raw bear--the gym teacher keeps threatening to take me to one of the places that serves this when it's in season. My own thought is that even at the most primitive level of humanity, if you've got the ingenuity to kill a bear, you can probably manage to build a fire.)
A few weeks ago, thinking about the process of trying to warm up to the shy kids, I wrote, "this job makes me think of Jane Goodall spending months trying to aclimate a troop of monkeys to her presence)." This lead to the best feedback comment I've yet gotten about a Japan letter (from Ruth):
you should try sitting very still with a dog biscuit in your outstretched hand. i would advise you to mimic their vocalizations but apparently you already do.
I love this mental image! With some of the kids, it just fits too well. On the other hand, most of them are pretty friendly, but the small-animal imagery still fits. This week, I went to elementary school again, the one I visit only three times a year, to teach 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders. For some reason, the second graders really took to me, and most of the time when classes weren't going on, whatever else I was doing I had a flock of navel-high second graders pressing around me. I'd be talking to a teacher or to a bunch of sixth graders, and meanwhile the little kids were taking my hands, stroking my shoes, stroking the hair on the back of my hands ("Wow! It's blond!"), and quietly looking at me, talking to me when my attention was free. One tall girl came up to me and hugged me every time she saw me, and, my favorite inexplicable behavior, another girl who almost never left my side constantly held my hand against her cheek, sometimes stroking her cheek with my fingertips or the back of my fingers. It was heartwarming, but at first a little disquieting because it felt like such an intimate gesture. At first I wondered what could have inspired such affection in a kid who'd only seen me a few times over the last year, but then I started thinking about how opague small kids' heads are--"opague" in the sense that the processes that go on in there are incomprehensible. You put in logical factors A, B, and C, the kid's head processes it, and for output you get a handful of ants to use as jimmies on an ice cream cone made of mud. A dog seems affectionate, but the real reason it is licking you is because it likes the salt in your sweat--if you tasted like garbage you'd have a friend for life. So I was content to have no idea what was behind the girl's behavior and chose to take it as affectionate, whatever it really may have been. I was pretty obviously sick that day, and outside the classrooms the school was around 30° F (-1 C), so several students were deliberately trying to keep my hands warm. Maybe that was her motive. In any case, it was a very warm gesture. Sweet, sweet kids.
The last note is a bit of news--shocking news, for Takefu. Yesterday morning, there was a murder in the Manyo area--the first in Takefu for decades (people seemed pretty fuzzy on when the last Takefu murder was). After lunch we first got the news that a 65 year old woman had been stabbed many times near Kitahino elementary school. Later, that was refined to an 85 year old woman bludgeoned near Kitashinjo elementary school. The murderer had not been caught. We canceled all extracurricular activities so we could send the kids home before dark, and we told all the kids who were walking or riding bikes home to stay in groups. A lot of kids called their parents for rides, and teachers walked around outside the school as kids were leaving, just to make sure there were no suspicious adults lurking nearby. I waited outside with the very last of the students to be picked up. I talked to a couple of girls from the village where the old woman was found. They didn't know who it was yet, but it would certainly be someone they'd known all their lives. The whole town is more surprised than frightened, I think. The murder rate here in the countryside is effectively zero. Takefu has about 75,000 people; for every 75,000 people in Chicago, there are about 20 murders a year, and in Takefu, by most people's counts, there have been two or three murders since the war, a rate 500 or 1000 times lower. Maybe now, people will stop talking about the last big crime story, a principal from a neighboring town who stole a TV from a Takefu store.
O genki de,
Update added later: finally found out, the last murder in Takefu was in 1949. No one could tell me when the last murder before that was. So that works out to one murder in 53 years.