From: Peter Rivard
Date: Wed Oct 9, 2002 6:34:23 PM Japan
To: Newsletter
Subject: The Official Blond of Takefu Junior High School Number Five

Hi, all,

Another Japanese legend has come to life for me. Some of the teachers were chatting in the teachers' room before school at Go-chu two weeks ago. A constant stream of students with problems and routine business came in went, of course announcing "I'm committing a rudeness" on entering and "I've committed a rudeness" on leaving (more graceful translations are possible, I'm sure, but that's mine and I'm sticking to it). In with a stack of papers for Alias-sensei came Pseudonym, the best argument I've come across for legalizing ritalin in Japan. I actually like the kid, but he makes all of our jobs more difficult. Alias-sensei took the papers, sent the kid off, and then, suddenly, barked the kid's family name. "Get back here!" He looked the kid over from the left and the right, then grabbed the top of the kid's head and pulled it toward him--and sniffed. Rapid, angry Japanese. Other teachers attempted looks of consternation. Had I just heard, "Go out and wait for me by the sink"? Pseudonym trudged out. The teachers released their chuckles. Alias, still looking angry, got up and equipped himself to mete out justice and restore order in the world--with a towel and a bottle of shampoo. The little putz had moussed his hair (no doubt out of the desperate desire for anything that would give him another two centimeters of height, as he is indeed a little putz). Alias left, and I chuckled, shaking my head. Takako, the English teacher, thought I was chuckling at Pseudonym.

Soon, Alias-sensei returned, sat down, and started to work. Then he sniffed his hands and said, "Damn, it still smells like mousse." At this point, classes had just started and most of the teachers--including, importantly, the vice principal, who dominates the small teachers' room, had left, so it was just Alias, Takako, and I. We had a long talk about hair-related discipline problems (basically, for kids, just about everything is forbidden). I actually agreed that if you're going to have rules, you should enforce them (within reason), and that since everybody at Go-chu starts off with the same basic hair, the hair rules aren't such a bad idea (for reasons obvious and less so, including some far too depressing to address right now). I pointed out that American schools don't enforce such rules as forcefully, for the twin reasons that personal appearance and hygeine are considered to be the parents' prerogative (parents don't have any prerogatives in Japan) and that it's not nearly as obvious that someone has altered his or her hair when everyone's hair is different to begin with. They told me that there is one girl with a slight modification who is allowed to get away with it because her behavior is otherwise excellent and the modification is slight enough that they can pretend not to notice--she has a straight perm, something I'd never imagined an Asian needing; however, I immediately thought of one girl whose hair is noticeably straighter than normal (or, if not straighter, it is softer and falls more flatly), a girl I'd always just thought had an exceptionally narrow head. I was right about who it was (and, being a gentleman, used the information to tease the poor dear later in the day). Anyway, the general upshot was that Alias-sensei came across as entirely the right sort of guy to be the teacher in charge of discipline issues, but perhaps disappointed that our well-behaved students give him so little opportunity to pursue his passion (to be fair, though, I really like this guy, and he's no martinet).

At the end of the discussion, I asked Alias-sensei how he felt about teachers' hair color, teasing Takako about her slightly lightened, red-highlighted `do (it's actually quite attractive), mentioning that it wouldn't be allowed at Manyo. Students (girls, of course) had complained that a young teacher there had lightened her hair, setting a bad example for them, and the teacher was promptly informed that black is not only beautiful but mandatory ("Oh, it's been bleached by the sun" not being a plausible excuse for a woman almost as white as me). Only the three of us were in the room--no secretary, no vice principal, no students.

A week later, I went out to lunch with Takako and Sachiyo, our entrant in the junior high speech contest, during a break in the contest. Takako brought up the conversation the week earlier, leaving out Pseudonym's name (not that Sachiyo couldn't guess), and mentioned that, just a few days later, the vice principal had pulled her aside and said that her hair was too light for a junior high school teacher--she had to darken it this weekend. Takako assumed that the reason she was told "darker" and not "black" was that the vice principal's own shade was a bit suspicious (and even pure black isn't natural in someone old enough to become a vice principal, a fact I can guess from the number of my twelve year olds with gray and white hairs). Takako didn't make any hints about the timing, but while I have no doubt that we can trust Sachiyo's discretion, I'm only 85% sure about Alias-sensei (coincidence is the most likely reason--if the foreign teacher had been noticing it and wondering if it broke the rules, a female boss just moved in from a more formal school [which would be almost any school in Japan] couldn't have missed it for long).

So, I'm not only the sole authorized blond at Manyo, but at Go-chu, too. Oddly, most elementary schools don't have rules about hair coloring, so the tots have more freedom than their older siblings--and the one bleach-blond little princess at the neighboring elementary school has a lot of the girls at Manyo hopping mad (except for the one girl whose mother is a natural blond, who probably wishes for darker hair). ALTs who've changed their hair color haven't gotten a lot of flack--except for the Asian ALTs, who've been ordered to go back to black, which hasn't always gone down well with them. Apparently, as long as the color and texture fall within the range of possibilities for one's racial type, it's OK--it's just that a few ALTs and almost all the regular teachers and students share a rather narrow range of possibilities (straight and black).

Enjoy your freedom!


linguistic note: People have mentioned the confusing variety of school names in my letters. Sorry, I've been trying to be consistent, but daily use has crept in. Manyo is always "Manyo," but I've also written about "my visiting school," "Go-chu," "5-chu," "my twice-a-week school," and "Daigo-chu," which are all the same place. I'll try to be more careful. My base school, with my official boss and work address, is Manyo, where I go three times a week. It's out in the rice fields at the far eastern end of town. Twice a week, I go to Takefu Dai-go Junior High School, a much smaller school up in the mountains on the far western edge of town (much closer to the Sea of Japan than to my house); "Dai-go" translates, rather poetically, as "fifth." "Chu" is the first character in and abbreviation for the Japanese word for "junior high school." Therefore, "Go-chu" is the usual shorthand around town, but "go" is written as a numeral about as often as it is as a character. All in all, Takefu's junior highs include 1-chu, 2-chu, 3-chu, Manyo, 5-chu, and 6-chu. Guess what number the Japanese equivalent of thirteen is.



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