To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Japan--the usual praise and bashing


Hello, friends,

      This is another catchall email. The first thought I've been saving up is a sad one, but maybe it says something--probably too much--about my adopted country. Last week, a Tokyo High Court Judge was arrested for having sex with a prostitute--a 14 year old prostitute, in fact a girl who probably wasn't a prostitute until the judge asked a junior high school girl he met if any of her friends would have sex with him for $200. Of course, I certainly don't mean the judge's crime itself as in any way telling about Japan. We certainly have all sorts of horrible things in our own press every day. It's more the reaction to it that I found horrifying. While one of my second year (eighth grade, the same age as the girl in Tokyo) classes was filing out after a class, I mentioned this to the regular English teacher (male, early forties), who had also read about it. He assumed the judge would be fired and have to pay a large fine. I said that in America, the judge would likely be sentenced to at least 8 to 10 years in jail (a figure I pulled out of my hat, admittedly). He was shocked--"That's very strict!" he said. Gesturing to the very little (as it seemed in the context) girls pulling on their shoes at the other end of the room, I asked, "Really? If some man asked, for example, that one," I said, pointing," to have sex with him, I'd rip his lungs out. Ten years doesn't seem so strict to me." He was really surprised. Later, at dinner at a friend's apartment, I asked another Japanese teacher (female, mid-twenties) about the case. She also seemed to think jail time was a bit too strict for a public official committing this sort of offense. She said that if both of them had simply wanted to have sex, it shouldn't be a problem, but since he had paid and since he was a public official, it was a crime and he should at least be fired and fined. I noted that in America we don't consider children capable of giving consent, especially to much older adults--when a grown up has sex with a child, there is no possible consent and thus it is always rape. It simply doesn't matter whether the girl agreed. Since one doesn't take disagreements too far here, especially with people one doesn't know well, the conversation didn't go any further. School girls are certainly fetishized here--almost every pornographic comic or photo spread I've looked at over someone's shoulder on the trains here has featured women (granted, usually obviously adult women) wearing junior high school or high school girls' uniforms, with the ponytails and all the little girl paraphernalia. Before I lead you to the conclusion that seducing minors is OK here, I do have to note that in general criminal sentences are much less severe here. Remember the three US Marines who gang-raped an 11 or 12 year old in Okinawa a few years ago (they attacked her and left her for dead in a wooded area), provoking all sorts of anti-US protests? After a lot of fuss, we let the Japanese try them instead of the US military. They were all found guilty and sentenced to 3-4 years. I think the US military still has the death penalty for that sort of thing (though they also seem to be quite lenient when soldiers have hurt or killed foreign civilians, as people in Japan and Italy, among other places, have noted lately).
      Everything to follow is much happier. On Tuesday, I went to Kanazawa on another field trip, this time with Go-chu, my twice a week school. This time, I had known what was coming, that the students would split up into groups of six and explore the city unsupervised. Beforehand, I had asked the second years if I could go with any of them, but when the students were splitting up, no one asked me to join them. I was a little hurt, because there are a number of kids in that year with whom I get along quite well and I assumed that second years, since they speak a little English and are much more mature and, well, less stupid, than first years, would be more fun. Fortunately, one of the first years asked me to join his group, so I did. I think he was trying (the little devil--Takuya) to fix me up with another teacher, because as we left I discovered that one of the two young single female teachers was also going with them, at least for a while, and the kid who had corralled me kept asking, in practiced English, "She is pretty lady, no?" Indeed, when I teased him and asked which of a bunch of girls from another junior high school we had crossed paths with he thought was prettiest, he told me he really thought the most attractive was not one of the other school's students but our own Lost-sensei, just behind me. Fortunately, the couple of times he asked me if I thought she was pretty or what I thought of her, I was always rescued by fate before having to answer (she's nice, but not my type). Anyway, it was a lot of fun, the kids were great, and a good time was had by all, but for a bit of rain. I did get a bit frustrated at times because these kids formed a much less competent group than the ones I went with last fall. This is probably because they were first years instead of second years, but I have to note that even for the part of the day Lost-sensei was with us, things didn't go any better. I've mentioned before that Japanese are, by and large, incapable of giving accurate directions (when lost, ask six people and average whatever they say; if you listen to one person, things will only get worse, and if you ask someone how to get to a place ten meters from the house he's lived in for sixty years, he's never heard of it). Now is the time to mention that they are all--at least EVERY SINGLE JAPANESE I'VE MET has been--absolutely incapable of reading a map. They--and this includes the teacher--would spend ten minutes arguing over the map, then would walk four meters to the intersection and start the consultation all over again. Although I had resolved not to interfere as this trip seemed designed as practice for their much bigger third-year trip to Tokyo, by the end of it I found myself jumping in and simply telling them, "That way!" when we were rushing to get back to the bus in time (of course, I'm the one who couldn't read the writing on any of the maps or the signs around us, I was the only one who hadn't been all over the city a dozen times, and I was the one who wasn't lost; go figure). Chris and I found the same situation over and over when we were traveling together. We also found at least one likely contributing factor. The Japanese are also incapable of making decent maps. Most of the ones we were given were not at all to scale, and were often bizarre schematics that didn't even maintain relative directions--a train line would be shown as a straight line to make the map simpler when in fact it went north at one point and then turned southeast at another, so that a point southeast of where you were would appear due north of you on the map. The other great foible of Japanese maps is that these people (oh, my god, I'm lapsing into phrases like, "these people") have yet to discover that north is up. Printed maps and maps in public places have all sorts of bizarre orientations, so that in front of every train station's neighborhood map is a large crowd of confused Japanese looking from the map to the street and back again trying to figure out which way on the map is which way in real life. Chris kept wondering how in the hell these people (there I go again!) ever found Pearl Harbor in the middle of a huge ocean when most of them couldn't find the park across the street, and I kept speculating that they must have bought some American maps (actually, Admiral Yamamoto, the leader of the attack, had been educated in America and presumably learned to read a map while he was there [he was also the wisest man in Japan at the time, having advised the emperor against attacking America]).
      Where had I been going with all of this? Oh, yes--the kids getting lost again and again. Before too long, they gave up on even trying to figure out where we were and adopted the strategy of hailing two cabs for the group and just telling the drivers to take us there. To be sure, divided among the bunch of us, it didn't cost much more than the bus, but every time our taxis pulled up in front a big crowd of classmates waiting to get into some museum or temple, we got laughed at. On the bus home, even the teachers teased me about my incompetent students ("Hey, I'm just the foreign English teacher! You guys are responsible for the `don't be a doofus' lessons"--would that I had any idea how to say that in Japanese). Anyway, the trip was fun, and I also enjoyed the bus ride there and back. I traveled with the second years, and Japanese tradition is that committees of kids prepare different games for the bus ride. These were very interesting. Some kids helped me with the first one, but I still have no idea what it was about. The second game was a quiz, and three girls helped me to understand the questions, the multiple choice answers, and the explanations of what each answer revealed about your personality. This was incredibly difficult for both the girls and me, because these were all far more sophisticated than the sum of my Japanese and their English. For example, one question was, roughly, "You see a man illegally picking flowers from a display in the middle of the street in front of city hall. You think (A) What a horrible man, vandalizing public property--he doesn't care that he's making it uglier for the rest of us; (B) He is too cheap to pay for flowers at a florist; (C) How romantic! He has no money, but he wants to give flowers to his lover! or (D) He must be angry at the city." The psychological interpretation of the answer I chose (of course, C) was explained to me, but I don't honestly remember what it was. C was seen as a strange answer, and the girls took it as evidence of my foreignness; apparently D is considered the "normal" answer. You can imagine how difficult this was for those three girls. I really appreciate their hard word--at the end of it, they were exhausted from the effort.
      So that was Go-chu's field trip. Today (Saturday) was Manyo's. I went with the first years to Little World (the Japanese name is "Rittoru Warudo," or "Little World" with a strong Japanese accent). Again, the bus trip was a blast. I rode in the back (it was a smaller bus, and I realized that the center seat in the row across the rear of the bus was the only place I fit) and had a great time. For a little while, I teased a pair of very tiny girls who wanted to sleep the whole trip, but for most of it I kept the kids around them from bugging them too much while they slept. One of the games was that a bunch of kids would do "rock, paper, scissors," and the rest of the kids would do something painful to the one loser. A variant of this confined itself exclusively to blows to the head. Another diversion was that each column of seats would draw a picture of a particular teacher, each kid drawing one feature and then passing it to the kid behind. While I wouldn't call the portrait of me flattering, I came out much better than any of the other teachers (on my bus--the kids from one of the other buses gave me their version, and in it I looked as monstrous as any of the other teachers--in fact, when I saw it, I inadvertantly taught them a new phrase, "Oh, my God," which I heard them asking the regular English teacher, my boss, about a little later). Since I hadn't really gotten to know any of the kids around where I was sitting, they were a bit leery of me to start (especially the girls--at first, girls are always either really leery of me or very enthusiastic about talking to me), but before too long they relaxed and talked to me. When we got there, one girl in a group I approached actually got a stricken look on her face and backed away from me, hiding behind her friends (among the first years, I am known to do such terrifying things as saying "Hello. How are you?" in English). I hope hearty laughter isn't an inappropriate response to such a thing. I asked Takahiro, a mature and friendly kid, if I could join his group. Little World is a group of transplanted or copied groups of houses from different parts of the world. The chief attraction seems to be the food and the chance, for ¥300 at each place, to dress up and walk around in native costumes. First, we went to a Korean house. It must say something about the stasis of culture here that although the main Korean influence on Japan was in the seventh century, the house and way of life illustrated were damn near identical to a rural Japanese house and lifestyle up until the time of the war. Same roof tiles, same architecture, similar decor, similar dress. One difference is that the Koreans apparently favored trick staircases with intentionally wobbly loose stairs, triggering my second inadvertant English lesson of the day. My twelve year olds, boys as well as girls (photo 1, 2, 3), were really adorable in the elaborate Korean costumes. I took a lot of pictures. On the way up the road, we passed Thailand, and I made the kids stop while I bought a whole fresh coconut and had the top sliced off for us to drink the milk. I had thought it would be a kick for them, but they were really wary about trying something as primitive as a huge raw coconut with a bunch of straws sticking out of it, and though I bullied them into trying it, no one liked it (it was much less sweet than those I'd had in Thailand and Viet Nam). As it turned out, the other teachers (whom I had abandoned to go around with students) happened by and were also bullied into trying it, and I later found out that this effort (at least with the students) impressed the teachers. Apparently, this is not a very Japanese thing to do. Next was Kerala, from southern India. For some reason, I found all the very Japanese-looking women wandering around in brilliant Saris quite amusing, especially with the little colored rhinestones glued to their foreheads (I think the kicker is simply posture or body language rather than appearance--I couldn't define it for either the Japanese or the Indians, but put one in the other's clothing and the result is just off enough to be comical--Reika in a sari). We had agreed to eat in Kerala, but since Minako, our fearless leader, had scheduled lunch for noon and it was only 11:30, she wouldn't, despite my broad hints, let us eat yet and made us walk around in the blazing sun doing nothing for half an hour (we also couldn't go to the next attraction, because that was scheduled for after lunch). Needless to say, after lunch there wasn't enough time to do everything they wanted before going back to the bus. When we finally got our Indian lunch, just as I was thinking that anybody selling such a mild curry would be run out of any American city, never mind Kerala itself, the students started whining, "It's too hot" over and over. I could barely taste the heat. Later, all the teachers I'd asked also said that it had been too hot, just at the limit of what they could endure but a little too much for them to enjoy. Japanese food is not very spicy. It sounds like I'm complaining, but I had chosen a great bunch of kids, and I had a great time with them. While the two boys were eagerly communicating with me as soon as I joined them, the girls opened up a bit when I pressed them, and after a while didn't even seem to be afraid of me anymore. By the end of the day, the girls were even initiating conversation with me. Oh, boy. I'm not sure exactly what it says about me that I seem to get along with 12-15 year old kids much better than and to enjoy being with them much more than the adults I spend time with. I suppose my inner child has better social skills than my outer adult.
      After lunch, on our way to Alsace, we passed a group of pens with two horses, two camels (big ugly two-humpers), two rabbits, and several sheep. Most Japanese never see livestock (it's all up in Hokkaido or hidden away in mountain ranches), so even the horses were exotic to them. Most of them had never even touched a rabbit before, and they were terrified of the horses, but they bought cups of carrots and bravely fed all the animals. It's funny to me to think of horses and sheep as exotic; last year, in an exam, one boy wrote that if he could go anywhere in the world he would go to Hokkaido; in answer to the next question, "why," he wrote "My dream is to touch a cow."
      Alsace was also a hoot, especially because of all the Japanese, especially my kids (1, 2), in traditional Alsation dress. I'd love to send pictures of this place to friends in Alsace, but sadly I don't know any Alsations. Oh, well. None of the kids in my group went for the costume option in Alsace, but the most enthusiastic dresser-upper, Reika (like the camera; at least that's how I remembered her name), did doll up in Peruvian peasant duds (including the weird hat they like down there) at the next stop. Since the three of us guys had a lot of time to loiter around while the girls helped Reika suit up, I wandered around and flirted harmlessly with a couple of groups of young (but adult) women, taking pictures of them with their cameras and offering advice on their fashion choices in the gift shop, which had the two boys in my group in stitches--I'll have to remember that when I get serious about hitting on local women I shouldn't bring twelve year-old boys with me. Since this was a "foreigners of the world" theme park and I was one of exactly two foreigners there, I took advantage of the attention I drew to have a lot of fun (I also greeted a couple of small kids, one of whom immediately screamed "MOM!" and ran under Mom's skirt).
      Another golden moment from the world of tykes. Yesterday, I taught at elementary school again, and some of the girls have learned a new trick. While the second grade teacher and I were standing around after class, a couple of the girls in her class stretched the necks of their T-shirts down to show their bare shoulders and said to me, "Sexshy." After some exaggerated disapproving glances from me, one of them then stretched up one leg of her shorts to show me most of a cheek and said "sexshy" again, laughing the whole time. While the teacher laughed, I pretended again to be greatly disturbed and asked in mock angry tones, "How old are you? How old are you?" One of the little things was so "sexshy" that during class I had mistakenly called her a boy (really, is there a meaningful difference at that age?). The kids are in their gym uniforms, shorts and T-shirts, most of the day, so the ones who don't go for obvious markers like long hair for girls or whiffles (that's Bostonian for "buzz cuts") for boys really could be either as far as I can tell. One of the glories of uniforms for junior high school kids is that they make it easy to tell a 13 year-old boy from a 13 year-old girl (in some cases, uniforms are the only things that make it possible). Their gym uniforms have little tags with their family names and, in a few cases (very common names, siblings in the school, twins, etc.), the first characters of their given names; I'm all for adding the character for "male" or "female" to the tags, just to make it easier for the teachers (fortunately, the language makes it easy to go without distinguishing, so it usually doesn't make a difference if you can't tell what sex the kids are ["sex" and "gender" are still synonymous in rural Japanese junior high schools]).
      So that's pretty much an entire week in the life. Next week I have all of one day of work (I get Monday off because I worked today) before I head off to Kobe for a three day conference, which I'm not looking forward to. These things tend to be very boring useless seminars, but it'll be fun to be in a big city and maybe meet some JETs I haven't seen before or in a while. I enjoy my job enough that, usually, given the choice between not being at work and being at work, I'd rather be at work. I really enjoy being around the kids--they're guaranteed entertainment. When I have to do something in the office for a long time, I'll sneak out when the kids are between classes and just walk around the halls talking to whomever I run into. After talking to a couple of kids, I always come back refreshed and happy (granted, a lot of the ego-reinforcing attention I get is because of my status as the special exotic teacher). And when I've been away from school during school vacations, even when I've been having a great time, I've missed seeing the kids every day and having quick access to such an easy lift for my spirits. In fact, I'm already wondering how, when my time here is over, I'll cope with all the frustrations of the world without a regular fix of Japanese schoolchildren. I'll have to take a bunch of pictures of kids smiling or tapes of them teasing me in junior high school English, maybe work them up into some sort of screen-saver I can activate whenever I need it. Oh, well. I'm sure I'll be fine.

O genki de,

Peter

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