To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Midget Mud Wrestling


      Well, I'm within a few weeks of having been here a year, and Japan is feeling more and more like my first memories of it--hot and oppressively humid. It's been the rainy season here, so most days for the last month or so it's been hot and wet, but when the clouds clear, like they have for the last few days, the temperature soars, but the air holds only barely less water than when it's actually raining. Every day, I have to debate whether to leave the windows in my car open and risk running out to close them before a sudden downpour or close them and wonder how much damage the heat might do to anything I'd left in it (one day, a bottle of water left in the car got so hot that five hours after sunset--and after I'd opened the windows--it was still scalding to the touch). Any exercise has become much more draining--even my small mountain has become a challenge again.
      On one of the last days before the full heat and humidity set in, I finally made it to the top of Mt. Hino, the tallest mountain in town and pretty much the entire view from my desk at Manyo. My friend Tammy sometimes visits the elementary school near Manyo, and she invited me to join the school climb. Since we were kept to the pace of a six year-old, having brought many six year-olds with us for amusement, it was a pretty easy climb--the peak is 794 m, and the climb from the school is probably about 730 m (about 2400'). The trail is well developed, but steep enough in a few places that most of us had to use ropes. At the top, Tammy and I were a bit surprised to see that everyone else had brought lunch--we hadn't thought to pack sandwiches (though of course we had plenty of water). The locals, of course, also hadn't thought to pack sandwiches. They'd thought to pack multicourse meals, largely in the form of raw ingredients--which, as they'd also thought to pack kitchens, worked out quite well. There was, of course, beer and sake for the men. A nice family adopted the hapless foreigners, and other groups brought contributions to our wellfare. We ate quite well (I did turn down the chance to fill up on sake at noon atop a hot mountain, using the excuse that I had to drive later). After lunch, I wandered off in search of a quiet spot to relieve myself, but just as I thought I'd found nature's men's room, a couple of 10-or-11-ish girls wandered by. They didn't say much to me, but they seemed to, coincidentally, find their way to just about every place I sought out within a few minutes of me. Later, after some conversation, these two and a couple of their friends became Tammy's and my official entourage for the day. In the meantime, I ran into a big crowd of six to nine year-old boys and a few girls taking turns running at and then as far as they could up a very steep muddy incline. Some made it far enough to grasp a protruding root and hoist themselves up to an area that was just enough less steep that one could manage a precarious but stationary squat. I made it up to the squat. What I discovered, though, is that the position is not secure enough for even a large foreigner to maintain it against the concerted efforts of half a dozen first graders. The first time they dislodged me (I sent about a dozen of them tumbling through the mud before the survivers knocked me off balance) I was able to stay on my feet and run down. The second time, though, I found myself at the bottom pretty much covered in mud--and in muddy children. Great fun was had by all. At the bottom of the mudslide, my self-appointed fifth graders collected me to show me around the mountaineering hut at the peak before we were called to the top for the inevitable rounds and rounds of group photos. They asked us to go down the mountain with them, so of course we did. I was amazed at how loosely organized the descent was. Groups straggled down at different speeds and drifted farther and farther apart, some completely without teachers. A few hundred yards after the group we were in halved at a fork, I heard a noise well behind me, stopped to wait, and found that an eight year old almost collapsing with exhaustion had been completely forgotten by everyone else, so I slowed our group up to take him in and keep an eye on him. It was a slow descent, but the three girls and boy who had adopted us were very talkative. Their "names" were easy to remember, too: Shiori, alias "Tarzan," explained that two of the girls and the boy had names that contained the words for condiments, so the thrid girl had also been given a condiment name: they were Salt, Sugar, Sugar (boy), and Kinako (a tan powder dusted onto confectionery). I've mentioned before that "Kinako" sounds like a plausible name for a girl, so a lot of kids introduce their female friends to me as Kinako when they're making up silly names. The slow boy didn't seem to want to talk much, though I tried hard to include him in conversation. The route down was steep and largely made of wet clay, so we made a running joke of counting how many times Kinako fell down. There were several roads leading from the various trailheads across the rice paddies back into the neighborhood near the school, and as I looked across the paddies, I saw groups of three and four, sometimes one or two, tiny children making their way back at all different paces. I'm completely amazed that that the same number of students arrived at the school as had left that morning (not that any deficit would have been discovered before dinner time).
      What else is new? With the heat, any activity is three times as tiring now as it was a month ago; school is horrible. I've learned which classrooms are hottest, but really they're all bad. Recent additions to the school uniform are the sweat-soaked towel hanging around the neck (we're beyond handkerchiefs now) and the fan with a picture of a pop star (my favorite is the picture of a half-naked teenage girl pop star on the fan of one of our stouter teachers--these are of course the hand-powered, waving-up-and-down kind of fans). I think it's also been officially sanctioned to open one's shirt or blouse one button lower. When I come into class, the kids are splayed out in their seats, mopping themselves with the towels in one hand, fanning themselves with the other, generally looking completely dissipated. The poor boys still have their horrible wool pants, while the girls not only have shorts on, but over the shorts they have skirts that can be flapped open and closed to cool the legs. Manyo is not a finishing school. (Go-chu is a bit more casual, and the students are allowed to wear their gym uniforms, shorts and T-shirts, in class on the worst days; also, it's cooler up in the mountains). On the warmer days, I'd guess that only about half to at best two-thirds of classes at Manyo pass without students having to be escorted to the nurse's office to cool down and drink some sort of electrolyte fluid. I might start to follow the lead of some of the other teachers and change into my gym shorts and T-shirt right after morning meeting and just hang around in that all day. Of course, the kids are still working out like demons in the hot sun every day after classes, running miles through the rice paddies and neighborhoods or practicing baseball or pole-vaulting for hours on end. When they put on their tournament uniforms, which have shorter shorts than the regular gym uniforms they practice in, you can see the most dramatic tanlines--they really look like you took pale kids and submerged them into vats of paint up to about mid-thigh, and the tanlines are generally as sharp as anything you could draw with a pencil.
      Because of the heat, my level of physical activity has gone down. I like to think I'm not growing a gut again, but today my elementary school kids seemed to delight in poking me in the belly and saying what I guessed to be "soft." One girl told me as she poked, "Belly is big." Commenting on and joking about such things isn't rude here. Later, she asked me how much I weighed, and then repeated my answer, adding "100" before the 85 kilos I actually weigh, and after I corrected her, pretending to be much agrieved, she repeated the right figure, adding, "Sumo-san," but then a chorus of kids started telling me the real weights of all the popular wrestlers, and fortunately the lightest of them is a good bit more than twice my weight (when someone's weight is in the 200-300 range and you're using kilograms, you start to wonder how in the hell anyone can consider him an athlete).
      Apparently, one on my recent visitors has been regaling friends with the story of the most amazing thing we saw together (well, not at the same time) in Japan. I mentioned the ubiquity of $1000 toilet seats; well, in a wonderful old-fashioned inn in the middle of the island, we saw a toilet that put those simple, cheap little things to shame. We got in late after dinner, and I was tired. I walked into the bathroom, faced the appliance, and was about to raise the seat. My eyes were heavy, my attention fogged. The toilet, however, was fully alert. Somehow guessing my intentions, the seat itself flew open. I jumped backwards against the door and screamed. As I paused against the door, suddenly wide-eyed, the seat, but not the lid, slowly went down. I approached it again, and nothing happened right away, but after just a couple of seconds of facing it, the seat again flew up. I stepped back; the seat went down, but the lid stayed open. I stepped out of the stall, and the lid closed. I stepped back in and stood in front of it, this time facing away, and the lid but not the seat flew up. How did it know? I was completely absorbed. I looked at the control, built into the wall beside it. This is the first toilet I'd seen where the actual flush control was electronic. There was a digital read out. I counted sixteen buttons--but then I noticed a door on one side, and when I slid it open there were a couple more LCD displays (mimicking analog dials) and a further 14 buttons. The controls for this damned toilet had 30 buttons. This amazing machine could not have cost less than about one and a half times what I had paid for my car. Freud really should have visited Japan.
      Another story that perhaps offers some insight into the culture. About two weeks ago, on a Monday, Ms. Yamada told me that my classes with Mr. Omori, the young English teacher I sometimes go out drinking with, were cancelled. He had called in sick, and was in fact heading to the hospital. At each stage of the story that followed, I thought, "Aha, so that's what happened!" and at each stage (except of course the last), I was wrong--it kept getting better.
      "Yesterday, there was a softball game of Manyo teachers against teachers from other schools." (Ah, a sports injury.) "Manyo won. After the game," (so it wasn't a sports injury?) "Manyo teachers had a victory party." (So he got in an accident driving home drunk? No, can't be that--I know he's very careful about not driving when he's been drinking.) "Mr. Omori was the coach, so the teachers were... do you say, `tossing'?" (Aha!) "They were tossing him. He went very high--he is not a very big teacher--but they did not catch him." (I wouldn't let that bunch of, I mean "my esteemed colleagues" even touch me.) "He landed on his forehead. He went to the hospital; he had hit his head very hard." (From further elaborate description, I gathered that he got a concussion, which he confirmed a few days later.) "This morning, his neck hurt, so he went back to the hospital." She also added that maybe next year the coach should be me or Hata-sensei, one of our gym teachers and a much heavier man than I am, since they wouldn't be able to throw either of us too high, and probably wouldn't even try. Fortunately, his neck got better quickly, so it doesn't seem to be one of those things that turn into a chronic problem--even more fortunate because that's not the kind of accident you want to be explaining for the rest of your life.
      On the other hand, that story would go down better here than back home. How would the following play in your local public junior high school? For the second-years' listening test, Mrs. Sugimoto had scripted a phone call between the two of us:

We recorded this on a Tuesday, to be used the next day, so although I didn't have any classes to teach that day, I made a point of walking into the second-years' classroom and being seen, so that they wouldn't think this was a real phone call. (Although I wouldn't have thought to write exactly this sort of exam, I see it as evidence that I'm starting to have an effect on Takako [Mrs. S.]--at first, she seemed surprised at the goofy story lines and topics I would come out with when I needed an example or any kind of exercise for students, although she always seemed to like them. Indeed, much earlier, she was very shy about acting her part in the goofier schemes. Now she's writing her own. I'm kinda proud.)
      Of course, the attitude toward work itself builds the stress that needs to be so vigorously released after hours. A recent example still surprises me. One of our English teachers had asked not to be sent off to a three-week English teacher's English refresher course near Tokyo because his wife was due to give birth in the middle of it. Not only was he refused, but after she produced the long-awaited daughter, he had to wait until the weekend before he could come back to Fukui to be with his family (and then had to return to the course the next week). What would you say to an employer who tried to do that to you?
      I'm loving it here: I'm happy to be in Japan, and I'm deliriously happy not to be Japanese in Japan.

O genki de,


(My Japanese friends have told me again and again that I and foreigners in general seem to enjoy their country much more than they themselves ever could).


For information on copyright and using the images on these pages, please click here.