Wednesday, 18 July 2012

In and out of context

There's a quote from Russell Brand in the papers today: 

If you’ve been on a diet of rice for a while and suddenly Willy Wonka asked you to take over the factory, you’d be kicking over barrels of candy and swimming in a chocolate river.” 

I wonder what the Japanese might make of this?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Facebook: should I stay or should I go?

Long before the advent of the E-card, anyone else remember their family receiving mass mailshot-style, wordprocessed Christmas cards which went well beyond a simple greeting?  In the spirit of a company annual report or a Queen's Speech, these reviewed the year's highs and highs, leaving you in no doubt that - in 1981, (etc) at least - the Jones could not be kept up with. (There were sometimes lows and passings to report too, of course, but better to gloss over those?) As a family we tended to send up these annual ego-fanfares over our Cornflakes, and I guess my disdain for shameless 'self-PR' has continued right through to the present day. It was a pity though that the authors of these missives were often genuine family friends, people we liked or loved .. in person, that is.

Now, in the (post-?) Facebook age (I guess the hippest social networks moved elsewhere long ago), alas, such feelings surface not annually, but at least weekly. Yes, this seemingly indispensable forum has alienated me to the point that the relative merits of the ‘anti’-social, haphazard networks of the past appear more attractive by the day. Certainly more so than selectively filtering what I learn and, more importantly, don’t learn from and about its members aka my ‘friends’.

First up: I have no problem with narcissism, when combined with wit and, most critically, self-awareness. I hope this deals to some extent with any accusations of hypocrisy from my one, two readers. The difference with a blog, though, is that it is 100% its author’s. Choose to ignore it with his blessing. Vomit on a merry-go-round, though, however colourfully, and those sharing its revolutions get little choice of the air they breathe. And post a picture of that experience on Facebook, puke on my Wall, and we all have to see it. You get the point…. 

I like the principle of social networking: an easy way to keep in touch. I also regularly use MSN Messenger and Skype. Trite to say so but, yes, what a boon the Internet has been. Yet with Facebook, we get saturated with the dumbed-down pseudo-meteorological updates of daily life that we never inquired about in the first place. People we know to be complex and multi-faceted get sucked in, posting pictures of cakes and pets and voicing ever-so-right-on-opinions on politics, animal rights and other things they couldn’t write essays on. They post pictures of themselves on holiday or with their exam certificates, update their ‘status’, comments on their own comments on their own comments. The same regurgitations no doubt litter Facebook's parallel universes, or 'networks', but here they are unique pioneers whose waters are neither still nor shallow. Every conversation is a cosy clash of monologues. Been there, got the trumpet. (Tip: write a blog!) The off-the-cuff, personalised dialogues which characterised our relationships yield to the trivia of third person diary entries. And how we used to reserve scorn for those that used to talk like that (I am thinking, for example, of the boxer Chris Eubank). Since when, why and how did we allow this to become de rigueur?

So, our 'friends'... maybe we once read the book; now we only judge the cover.

Yes, how bland and crass the whole thing is: just in the last week I’ve read posts from someone complaining about it being that ‘time of the month’ and their ‘shitty cramps’, another asking for relationship advice with the open question: “how do you get someone off your mind?”. (are there any questions on Facebook which aren’t rhetorical?), Sex and the City-style “we’ve done you; now it’s my turn” “you look gorgeous!” comments on photos and other slush and shit. One friend-couple I know even exchange sweet-nothings, sulks and reminiscence on their walls with such regularity you’d think private email had been outlawed. Who needs a stalker when you’re already doing his / her homework? It's as if intimacy has to be verified with the outside world.

All of this reminds me of how much I admire the Japanese for keeping their own verbalisation in check, mutual revelation as balanced as possible in conversation, and generally not haemorrhaging their own private thoughts and feelings to the first stranger who turns up, willing to listen. 

Except that … on Facebook, they somehow seem to be taking us on at our own game. The culture and rules of engagement being Anglo-American, i.e. self-absorbed and attention-seeking, of course.

So permit me one name-drop of my own (it's not Facebook, after all). Over to the master of one-liners, the (deceased) Romanian philospher Emil Cioran...

If we could truly see ourselves the way others see us we'd disappear on the spot.” 

Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” 

We so need a voice like this in The Facebook Age, don't we, dad?

Friday, 2 July 2010

Baton (plus au Japon)

This site is currently down (until October 2010) for urgent lifestyle maintenance.
Closing credits

The final thank you goes to Ms Yuki Atsumi for her kindness, selflessness and putting up with my (occasional?) moods over the last 6 months. Japanese territory is far from hostile .. but in Shizuoka, with her family (and the greatest food) it always felt like home. Take care, Shizuoka. Take care, Snow.

(Snow, Ise, March 2010)

The day before my flight home, I visit Kamakura, its Great Buddha, beautiful Hase Kannon and a number of temples. True to form, I also take a wrong turn and get lost on a muddy hiking path.

At the 'hydrangea temple', Meigetsu-in, I read the tourist pamphlet. Inside there's a four-line poem written by the Buddhist priest Kakuryoubou Dousou 'while in the sitting meditation posture' shortly before his death.

For 37 years
I held the mirror of karma high
Now with a smash I break it to pieces
and the Great Path falls away.


So let me get this clear. I’ve only been here for 6 months and I’m expected to make a speech? In front of all classes, most of whose Japanese is so good I don’t understand it? As well as in front of all of the teachers, including the tannin (lead) ones? As a World Cup pundit might put it, that’s a big ask. And, as a sayonara and arigatou, this may not be the most confidence-enhancing of experiences for my Japanese.

Writing this final blog in Shizuoka, building up to England v Germany, slowly forgetting a speech which I consider a debacle, I actually think I’m speaking reasonable Japanese for the first time. This weekend, most of the time, I can express what I want to express. It’s a satisfying way to end six months here.

But it won’t have seemed that way last Friday, at the end-of-course ceremony. My Japanese then will have seemed anything but natural.

Over the previous few weeks, my brain had been fed like the liver of a foie gras goose: stuffed daily beyond its limits with new grammar, which I have little opportunity to use, the learning had been congested. I couldn’t breathe for new words and structures. Again, not a criticism: the Yamasa course lays the grammatical foundations, but you’re going to have to find the free-time (and Japanese friends) somehow if you want to use it as well as pass those exams. I always took a long-term view: follow the course, stick to the essentials, and every so often – as well as maybe in the long term - you’ll be able to ‘activate’ this knowledge through interaction with Japanese in the real world, outside the classroom and away from its role plays and not entirely authentic exchanges. On days like this Sunday in Shizuoka, for example.

Of course there are different ways of making speeches. One is to adlib: neither my Japanese, nor confidence, permit me to attempt this, although I was rather envious and impressed to see one or two in the class above me seemingly manage it. That’s a goal for the future, if I can find a stress counsellor.

(Students in the class above always seem like strutting gods in their command of Japanese, but – then again – I thought the same watching the last end-of-course ceremony three months ago. It only takes three months further study to realise that, well, actually, they’re just three months ahead .. and mere mortals.)

Another is to write a speech and read it. That seems like a bit of cop-out to me.

So I really prepared mine, even if the audience will not have noticed. Oratory has its specific ways and means in most languages – and I suspected the same in Japanese. So, taking care to produce a speech that incorporated words and structures that - for the most part - I knew (what’s the point in reading out someone else’s speech?), I sought assistance from one of my private language teachers and the ever-obliging Snow-chan. I wanted to speak my own Japanese, however clumsy, after all. And then, in the few days before, I did my normal teacher (and once, best man) trick of turning this into prompt cards with key words / bullet points written large. Which I then practised reading, each time looking down a little less.

I didn’t care too much if it would be slow – as we say in English, it’s better not to hurry through a speech - although I’m not sure the Japanese think the same.

When the big moment arrived, it was – I feel – a 'bit of’ a car crash. I felt pretty haunted by it even before I had finished. This in the land of saving face. In front of teachers, past as well as possibly future. And the entire student body. Yikes. I started off by forgetting to collect my graduation certificate. I finished by omitting to collect flowers which my stunningly kind and supportive classmates gave me. I held a mike throughout the speech which I didn’t use. (Or want to use, for that matter. With my cue cards, some of which I dropped as my speech ‘progressed’, I would have needed three hands.) And the lecturn, which I also would have preferred not to have, was so low that it reminded me of standing at my kitchen surfaces. The latter are a convenient excuse for my lack of inspiring cooking in Japan, and it has occurred to me since that this might be a fitting analogy (and, equally, convenient excuse) for my speech too. I also confused one or two teachers’ names before correcting myself, adlibbed once or twice in inappropriate Japanese when I lost my place (as my cue cards started slipping down the lecturn, to pelvic level).

Anyway, my friends – well, some of them - said they enjoyed it. Some even said it was ‘good’. I guess they were in a good mood, having passed their exams. None of this is false modesty. I repeat: it was a 'bit of a' car crash. And the support from my class was second to none.

I got a few laughs, but as much at my expense as where I might have hoped to hear them. If it was funny, it was, I suppose, Mr Bean-funny. So much so that my deliberate mistakes – such as when I pretended to call my tannin-sensei Nie-sensei 'kibishi' (strict) before correcting it to 'kireina' (beautiful) – may well have been taken for slip-ups too. Yes, as my dear private lesson tannin Matsuyama sensei, listening in secret from the floor above, asked me afterwards, I was nervous. Very. (As well as sleep-deprived.)

So, in short, good reason to walk around Okazaki with a paper bag over my head for the rest of the weekend. But I didn’t, and had a great final 24 hours (apart from the interminable packing). My classmates I will miss greatly, my teachers too, Okazaki itself, well.. that’s a different story.

Good bye, le Velociste. Au revoir, le Fromage. (For those who have read this from Day 1.) And thank you to everyone for their good wishes. Especially Carla, Sandra, Miffy and Sharon (all san) for their card, and Y-san, my first friend here and the last to say farewell too.

For those who enjoy J-Horror, I gather that my speech has been recorded and may find its way onto Youtube sooner or later. In the spirit of free and open access to information, I will copy the link here, but I will watch it alone, with my head and a large whisky in my hands.

Until then, I have copied below how the speech was meant to come across. (There’s few kanji for ease of reading.) Nie-sensei, if ever you happen to read it: remember, if I didn’t quite succeed in conveying the message, I’ll say it again: you’re a model and a legend. Thank you.


私は YAMASA で 6ヶ月 べんきょう しました。

日本に 来る 前は、イギリス で きょうし を して いました が、今は また 学生 に なりました。

たのしい 六ヶ月 でした。 先生だちもういちど 学生 に なるの は いかが です か。

ほんとう に すばらし けいけん が できました ので YAMASA に また もどって きたい と 思っています。

でも これから 私の もくひょう  は ワールドカップ を 見ること です。 (がんばれ イングランド!)

この 6かげつ いろいろな かた に とても おせわ に なりました。

はじめに、 わたし の クラスメイト に おれい を いいたい です。 「ありがとう」

イギリス で みんな の こと を おもいだします。

つぎ に、 いま まで おしえて くれた せんせいがた、 ありがとうございました。



プライベート レッスン の



おしえること は たいへんです ね。
きょうし を おしえる こと は とても たいへん だった でしょう。

さいご に、 ふたり の せんせい に とくべつ な かんしゃ の きもち を つたえたい と おもいます。

ひとりめ は、 プライベート レッスン の たんにん の まつやませんせい.
たのしい じゅぎょう を ありがとうございました。
いつも わたしの じゅぎょう の ために じゅんび を たくさん して くれましたね。

わたし は イギリス に かえります ので、これ から は ゆっくり して ください ね。

ふたりめは、ゆうめいな にえせんせい。 

きびしい、いいえ、 きれいな たんにん の にえせんせい。

にえせんせい に ずっと おしえて もらえて とてもうれしかった です。

にえせんせい の じゅぎょう を うけて、 日本語 だけ じゃなくて、きょうし と いう しごと の しかた を おしえて もらえました。

ほんとう に にえせんせい は きょうし の おてほん だ と おもいます。

みなさん、いま まで ありがとうございました。

Classroom Pipedreams

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn not one but two languages (French and German) through to A-Level at school. The emphasis was on teaching then, which was fine by me, and the textbook took centre stage. Substitution-based exercises geared towards understanding and application of correct grammar made for less exciting lessons, usually without singing or dancing, yet - in my opinion - better long-term learning. We also had vocabulary books into which we - contemporary educational anathema – copied new words from the board. Vocabulary learning was for homework and tested regularly in class. It all felt like a long-term project.

Rather worryingly for me, this was 20-25 years ago. But the experience and approach was largely similar to that of the last six months in a class of fourteen in Okazaki: Yamasa, you see, is unashamedly old school in its approach.

Here, too, grammar and vocabulary lead the way. There are no interactive whiteboards - relatively uncommon in this electronic superpower of a nation - and the course textbooks were first published well over ten years ago but no-one seems to mind. Vocabulary is introduced and repeated chorally but, beyond that, it’s for the student to get on with in his own time. What matters is that the basics are put in place. Particles, tenses, forms. And words. It’s not perfect, neither is it always enjoyable, but – for most students - it works, so there's nothing to fix.

Contrast that with the average government-micro-managed Modern Languages department back home. Its obsession with having the latest ICT and gameshow plenaries. Its teachers jostling to teach the most ‘fun’ lessons - always welcome but not the sine qua non of effective learning. Its cyclical yearning for new glossy textbooks with images of the latest stars, which suddenly render years of often invaluable teacher-made resources obsolete, and which are designed to reflect the latest government ‘Programme of Study’ as well as inculcate that old chestnut, ‘cultural awareness’.

(The single best way for the government to promote the latter would be tackle the risk assessment culture that makes the organisation of school exchanges, from which I learnt so much as a student, such a poisoned chalice for most teachers. Though better than nothing, experiencing a foreign country in the company of classmates on an off-the-peg sanitised coach trip can hardly be considered a modern languages trip at all).

Yes, despite my qualified praise for certain educational initiatives (see earlier posts), I fear that the British approach to teaching languages went off the rails and possibly disappeared somewhere unholy a while back.

In 2005, training to become a languages teacher, the challenge for me was to learn not to teach languages like I was taught them. So I had to ‘unlearn’ my own (teenage) classroom experience. Again, I should stress that this brought with it positives too. However, as far as teaching languages specifically was concerned, we learnt - in the name of the most recent best practice called ‘communicative language teaching’ - a very new approach to doing things.

In this new world, communication was king, whilst accuracy was merely a plus. Indeed, error was often excusable. It was suggested that we reward students whenever possible: we were told there were even optimal ratios for ticks to crosses; for words of praise to words of correction. And there was very little of the negative marking which I learnt so much from at school and Yamasa. Maybe this worked in certain other subjects but .. languages? As in life, as in school: isn’t it what we do wrong that we learnt most from? (Granted, if handled with tact and encouragement. Students need to have the courage to make mistakes too.) Thinking back, it seems to me that there was a culture of sending out the wrong message. Grammar always felt neglected and - in all but the top sets of a comprehensive school - rather optional.

The reader (if his name's not Ben) might feel that these criticisms have the ring of elitism. To which I respond: since learning correct grammar takes less time than correcting mislearned grammar, I fear the communicative method is condemning those able linguists who in ever decreasing numbers are continuing their studies into higher education and beyond, to wasted time. Wasted time revisiting the foundations of their language studies which now, as the gold stars earned at school begin to peel, are unmasked as a linguistic botch job. And snobbish and heretical as this attitude may sound coming from a Languages teacher, it’s legitimate to query what those pupils who cannot foresee any future interest in using a foreign language stand to gain from acquiring a ropey, basic grasp of one at all. Languages for Many, but not All, is surely the more realistic ideal.

So, thank you, Yamasa. If I were studying in an English school today (a generalisation - I fear I may mean 'comprehensive'), would I learn as much as I did in the 1980s? I doubt it. (Most likely, I would end up doing the thing I always did best at school: teach myself at home, at my own pace, following my nose.)

Just thinking of the lessons I have taught, the emphasis on games would strike me as gimmicky; I’d get anxious being tested on language introduced only minutes ago (I’m equipped with a woeful short-term memory), and the starter-main course-plenary format would seem like a straitjacket, a tired commute to a Learning Objective, devoid of spontaneity, leaving me with the feeling that I've been rammed down someone else’s communicative pipeline. (Teacher, why are you asking me to order snails?)

The journey down the communicative superhighway would seem a bit dull, and I’d want to take the occasional sliproad, head off on a tangent, just as – in real life – you never know when you might want to quit the beaten track, slip into the undergrowth, or even just stop at the nearest Little Chef. (No snails there.) Linguistically speaking.

In the real world, after all, we don’t know what communicative challenge lies around the corner, so let’s not overstate how communicative an environment the classroom can be. We learn best from using language to say the things we genuinely want to say, and at the time we genuinely need to say them - whether this be to order a beer, chat up the barmaid or apologise for one’s drunkenness. The classroom is not life (we get a worksheet after the role play) but it is the place to put the foundations in place. Restoring grammar and vocabulary to the heart of language teaching is not a manifesto for dull, old school lessons, but a sensible acknowledgement of the fact that, at school, we no longer have the luxury of learning like babies.

(Simple format for effective lesson: 1 Learn new words. 2 Introduce, rehearse and apply new grammar. 3 Combine words and grammar. 4 Use it, ideally to produce something new. Oh, and starters and plenaries - which are fine by me - either side.)

A few final words on Yamasa. If I broadly approve its methods (but not its thinking on exams), why do I still speak Japanese so hesitantly and often incorrectly, as well as consistently feel linguistically inadequate in my (rare) exchanges with Japanese? Well, I didn’t come to Yamasa to learn how to speak Japanese. I came to apply a base coat: accelerate through the grammar, give myself a foundation to go out and make progress, and then relate real spoken Japanese back to what I have studied. I've often read that the best way to learn a language is to go out into the world and speak it ... but disagree. I need that foundation, first. The walkabout will come later.

And yet (never satisfied) I didn’t always enjoy lessons, just as I often didn't enjoy school as a child. They could be frustrating. Whether an adult foreign student, or a Japanese junior high pupil discussing whales, language learning can feel like one constant, unnatural performance. There are off-days and on-days but it’s always like a flight simulator, never quite the real thing, however great the pretensions to 'immersion'. So we steer clear of words we struggle to pronounce. Or, preparing to speak, with our answer clear in our head, we fluff our lines or have a mental blank. Or, just when we are warming up, we feel ourselves go cold again and the question passes to someone else. Conversely, the more we forget we are performing, the better we actually perform.

So, to twist a quote (of a Bard, but not a Cornish one), the world’s not just a stage, but also a classroom.

Unless you’re at school, perhaps.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Speed debating whaling

We are led from the taxis into a room with six tables, each with a bottle of mineral water and a welcome sheet. We have not had to sign in or undergo security checks. Our instructions tell us to wait here. Shortly we will be collected by students who will take us to their classroom. There, at 10-minute intervals, we will rotate around the six groups of seven or eight chuugakusei (junior high school students) and "discuss with the students", in English, a topic I know little about: whaling. Our host teacher tells us they want to know "how the foreigner thinks".

We can expect most, if not all, of the Japanese, to be pro-.  They expect us, the monolithic foreigner, to be anti-. One of us is from Singapore; another from New Zealand. Oh, and there's that up-himself Brit too. (The other three students who have made today's trip will go to another classroom to discuss 'foreign culture'. They are all Americans.)

The Antipodean, also a teacher, has researched the topic at length and brought pages of notes. She knows her stuff and reels off a list of issues such as health concerns relating to mercury poisoning which I am unfamiliar with. These students had better not be too good at English. I am going to blag it - my sympathies lie with the whale, although I am aware this exposes a stack of hypocrisies, not the least being my regular consumption of other majestic, sentient sea creatures (the tuna, the namako ...) .

A further complication is that I am just getting over a hangover, which accompanied me through an exam this morning, and am hoping the mints will work their magic as I (re-)cut the figure of the reflective practitioner for the first time in six months.

After short introductions from the front of the class (which many of the 45 or so students present ignore or talk over - have I lost my classroom authority so quickly?), in our best, basic Japanese, we begin the speed-debating. My first two tables are hard going; they don't seem to listen to one another and I even have to speak some Japanese, which - as it's me - is rather unflattering to them. I can't even remember the Japanese for 'whale'. Not that they seem to mind; on hearing my stop-start pedestrian sentences, they show more interest.

I wonder: am I here for my 'foreign opinions' or my English? There's a whiff of indifference in the air. (I expected shyness; is this its disguise here?) Most have written up their opinions in advance but many of the students' prep-sheets seem to be in Japanese. We do a quick thumbs-up check around the table; with one exception, they are all pro-. But little discussion follows.

Having whittered on in short sentences to little effect about the need to question tradition, man's status as 'king of the jungle' and the reponsibilities this entails, as well as the highly sophisticated intelligence of the whale you Japanese like to eat, and waved my hands pointlessly whilst circulating teachers take photos, I am twice rescued by the 10-minute bell. Move on to the next partner, oops, group, please. This isn't going great. I have had no ticks, sorry, I mean discussions, so far. I used to be a teacher, you know.

Then again, isn't this more than a little challenging for the junior high-schoolers? Most of the students are fourteen years old. And my experience of 14-year olds is that they rarely have opinions on such matters, and those that do may struggle to argue them in their own language. (This, in a country where expressing opinions is rarely the purpose of conversation, and may often seem impolite.) Have they even heard the pronunciation of most of the topic-specific vocabulary they would like to be able to use today? I doubt it. I doubt they even know that vocabulary. So no wonder there's this sense of 'stage fright': language is a performance, and that applies to my Japanese classes too.

I can't help wondering if the Americans got the better deal.

Things become more interesting at the third and fourth tables. For a start, they all listen and all talk a little. Noticeably, the girls tend to have the best English. One or two really give it a go and speak well. Here, the discussion seems to go somewhere at last.

The overwhelming view is that hunting for whales is part of Japanese tradition, and tradition should be respected. In response, I am reduced to simplistic analogies in support of the argument that traditions are not intrinsically good. What would they think if eating dog, a creature less intelligent than the whale (but, to the Japanese I suspect, far more sentient), was an English tradition? They listen politely. Some translate to their friends. Analogy might not be part of Japanese debating tradition. And someone might just be telling their parents tonight that the English traditionally eat dogs.

I ask: have they eaten whale before? Most have, once or twice. Then they surprise me: they even have it on the school lunch menu occasionally, I'm told. It's not a joke. I wonder why I'm here. Revolution is not in the air. Japan will still be whaling for decades to come.

We round off the visit with short, simple conversations in Japanese, pose for a classroom photo, say our goodbyes. The boys stand behind my chair; the girls behind the female visitors. Tonight, it's Denmark v Japan on TV, I'm thinking.

In the taxi back, we discuss how it went. My colleagues are complimentary and generous in their praise of the students' English. I keep quiet; my impressions were mixed. What did I get wrong, I wonder. Damned by my high expectations? Blame my training for that.

One more day in Okazaki.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

More secrets of the Orient

(Taken somewhere - Himeji? - in Japan, April 2010, I think)

 (Taken near Kompira-san, Shikoku, summer 2009)
(I'm not) Looking for Orange Phantasia

The initial ‘hook’ which leads us to support a particular football team is often rather random.

For example, I seem to recall that my grandfather, who had no connection with Birmingham, supported Aston Villa simply because he liked the name.

If we all chose football teams for similar reasons, surely Bulgaria’s ‘Botev Plovdiv’ would be the world’s most popular team.

Once a Botevist, always a Botevist. Maybe even a ... Bultra.

Japan also does a neat line in football team names. Even the oldest sides were founded only in the 1970s, well before the J-League began (in the 1990s), so it's no surprise that a number of their teams have flash, brash modern-sounding titles.

Take the first J-League game that I saw, a few weeks back. It was not between Iwata Rovers and Kawazaki City. No, it was Júbilo [“Exultation”] Iwata v Kawasaki Frontale [“Frontal”], the current team of babyfaced former Arsenal midfield supremo Junichi Inamoto.

The Japanese gift for taking and transcending the meaning of foreign words – as exemplified by so many katakana – applies to soccer teams too.

Jubilo 3 Frontale 1, Iwata, May 2010

Jubilo are the (more sexily-named) Liverpool of Japanese football. Once its most consistently successful side, they have more recently dwindled in the lower reaches of the J-League and only just retained their place in the top echelon last season.

To make matters worse, there’s a brash, funky new kid on the block, in the latest hip trainers, and his name is Shimizu S-Pulse. Founded in the 1990s, S-Pulse - "a combination of the capital letter "S" of "SOCCER, SHIMIZU, SHIZUOKA" and the English word "PULSE" for describing excitement of football-loving citizens and team spirit” ( ) - is now drawing higher attendances than its bitter prefectural rival (Iwata lies just east of Hamamatsu; S-Pulse is the Shizuoka club) and was top of the table the last time I looked.

The Shizuoka upstart has a marketing machine that has gone into overdrive. They are truly 'working their brand'. In Shimizu, you'll find the ‘Dream Plaza’ and many Pulse shop outlets. In addition to its 'Club Philosophy' (‘Common Dream, Common Excitement, Common Pride’) S Pulse also have an annual catchphrase used on its merchandising, which for every year since its inception is listed at :-

1998 Break Through

1999 Dream Stadium 1999

2000 Big Mission 2000

2001 Dynamic Soccer 2001

2002 Orange Fantasia 2002

2003 Exciting Field 2003

2004 Hard & Attack 2004

2005 2005 かける想い

2006 かける想い S-Pulse 2006

2007 かける想い S-Pulse 2007

2008 We Believe 2008

2009 We Believe 2009

I wonder: did they call in that visionary bard (not to mention “Irish singer-songwriter, musician, philanthropist, actor and television-radio personality“ [sic], according to Wiki) Ronan Keating to pen these slogans? His bland signature seems to be all over it.

What would Hristo Botev say?

Perhaps the truth is that football teams should do their talking on the pitch. Which is to say that they say it best when they say nothing at all. (An uncharacteristically perceptive line which Ronan has, regrettably, never quite lived up to in his own career.)

Whatever the truth, we can safely assume that the Saatchis were not involved. Not even in 2003.

But it (the Engrish, that is) gets even better. Shimizu also have a mascot called "PUL". Why Pul? Well, he's “named after the English "PAL", of course, "the similar sound and spelling of PULSE”. “PUL was born as a modern, elegant, charming and energetic character with such necessary skills for football as quickness, strength and wisdom. Plumage of its ears [emphasis added] symbolizes S-Pulse players flying quickly in the field.” ( )

On the Pul.

What could Jubilo do to counter this growing menace? Well, not to be outdone by the scum an hour eastbound on the Toukaidou Line, they have been trying to get their marketing act together too. This includes a catchphrase (currently 'Evolution 2010') as well as an English language page on the way…

I'm not quite sure what happened to Jubilo's last attempted makeover - the ‘Next10 Jubilo Vision’ which it unveiled most definitely to the World in 2003. It's such a priceless all-conquering mission statement that I've copied and pasted it in its original English below:

'Drawing up the "NEXT10 JUBILO VISION" action policy for victories in the next decade'
( , January 27, 2003).

This year, Yamaha Football Club Co., Ltd., "Jubilo Iwata," to mark their 10th anniversary of being awarded J.League status, drew up long-term vision for the next decade as a club, the "NEXT10 JUBILO VISION." The "NEXT10 JUBILO VISION" is an action policy that summarizes the goals that Jubilo Iwata, a team that strives to challenge the world, should achieve in the next 10 years. At the same time is also a promise to the hometown, fans, supporters, and sponsors that support us.

Jubilo Iwata, since its establishment as a club in 1992, has had "the world" as a goal to strive for, and we have acted as a club with a philosophy to continue to be a source of "Dreams and Emotions" to many people.

"Striving to challenge the world with football full of dreams and emotions" - when we made this declaration 10 years ago, we had no idea how far it was to "the world," what kind of path we should follow, how to measure our progress, or the experience to bring us closer to this target.

However, we continued our efforts with the belief that continuing to win and to advance would eventually produce an entrance into "the world," and it is only now that we have reached a point where the path to "the world" is clear.

It is this from these experiences that we regard "START10," or our first 10 years as our "success." We are proud that this success is the result of constantly having our gaze on "the world," our medium- to long-term planning to strengthen the team strategically and striving to construct an operating base with a strong constitution. During this time, we captured six Stage Championships, three J.League Championships, and won the Nabisco Cup once; in international tournaments, we captured the Asian Club Championship and the Asian Super Cup, all significant achievements. Unfortunately, the First World Club Championship which we were scheduled to play in was cancelled; however, we believe that we are getting steadily closer the goals we are striving for. Jubilo Iwata is never satisfied with the present, but we always have higher ambitions in our hearts, and we continue to compete to be the best.


In the next 10 years, Jubilo Iwata will be "Challenging the World."

In the next 10 years, Jubilo Iwata will be "Establishing our own club image" that is hometown-based and that can be supported by all supporters.

In the next 10 years, Jubilo Iwata will display strong leadership so that "the local region will be energized through sports."

Just where did it go so wrong? It really reads as though they had been playing too much Championship Manager. (And I know exactly how that feels.)

So I've done the reconnaissance. Now comes the decision: which Japanese team to support? I’ll run through the options:-

1 Jubilo – first stadium visited; excellent fans. (One I met in the ‘Jubilo Café’ even gave me his scarf (a big thank you to Yuka Shiraki - remember, you're now a 'Gooner'). Not too far from Okazaki either.

2 S-Pulse – Shizuoka team. Shizuoka is, for specific reasons, the Japanese city I feel most connection to. But it all reeks of a commercial enterprise, a bit Manchester Utd (complete with naff slogans). Well and vociferously supported though, and with expat supporter sections too who have made some fine T-shirts ( ) .

(Shizuoka also have a wriggly, skilful striker called ‘Okazaki’ who wins the softest Ronaldoesque penalties, and who has made the Japanese World Cup Squad.)

3 Grampus Eight – Turned around by AW before he came to Arsenal but a Nagoya team. And I have little affection for Nagoya.

So, that's .. inconclusive. None appeal. I might just remain a neutral observer. Arsenal - and Arsenal alone - it shall be. Reality just can't live up to the (orange) fantasy, can it?

Bring on the World Cup!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

(It's not all) education, education, education

Have a break, have a Spicy Fire Egg. (C)
Backo to Gakkou

During previous stints of employment as lawyer and teacher (call those lengthy interludes between study), one of the big professional development buzzwords that I became accustomed to hearing was ‘reflective practitioner'. Much like 'performance management', 'value added' - and countless others which time or sake have erased from my memory - the phrase followed me from one profession to the next. It became such a cliche that colleagues began to use it mockingly:-

You've missed the bus.
You've forgotten your packed lunch.
You've been caught in flagrante in the broom cupboard.
What would the reflective practitioner do?

Basically, being a 'reflective practitioner' came down to not thinking you’ve made it, realising you’ve still got a lot to learn, remembering you’re not the dog’s bollocks, and continually rethinking how you do things, notably from observing how others do them. All of which states the obvious, but even I can see this is sometimes necessary in education. After all, there are a lot of dog’s bollocks in schools - and not all the golden balls glitter.

In pursuit of this ultimate, a (languages) teacher can learn so much from observing other (languages) teachers, and I regret not having done so more often. Teachers who sat in on my lessons in the past may occasionally have seen 'good practice' but also plenty of bad: for the ‘reflective practitioner’; both are formative. (Deep down, faced with the pressures of the OFSTED / observation overkill age, most teachers are reassured to see the occasional lesson that sucks. Consistent excellence can be quite daunting.)

But frankly, when it comes to re-thinking one's own teaching, peer observation is no substitute for becoming a (languages) student again. Studying part-time in Ealing and full-time in Japan, a neat by-product of my classroom experience is that I have get to learn not only a lot of Japanese but also some more about teaching. (Or should that be ‘Teaching and Learning’ – another hideous buzzword which, once popularised amongst teaching staff, was updated / reversed by the politically correct mantra-makers to ‘Learning and Teaching’, just in case the reflective practitioner was in any doubt as to which should be his priority.)

I don’t envy my teachers, having a teacher in their classes. (Perhaps it's a bit like being a non-mother tongue languages teacher teaching mother tongue pupils.) Which is why I very rarely mention the fact that I am a teacher, and look to demonstrate professional solidarity even after the least illuminating lessons. Besides, as I’ve mentioned many times, and will stress again here, Yamasa’s teachers are - give or take the odd lesson - good. In some cases - the admirable Nie sensei being the obvious example - I'd say they are exemplary teachers. She has never come close to having a bad lesson, whereas I, in my capacity as a student, have had many.

Once a teacher, always a teacher. I remember reading that teachers typically identify themselves by how they talk to their children in public places, e.g. when in the supermarket – “leave those Weetabix packets alone, Tarquin” – and I suspect the same applies when a teacher (unenviably?) finds he has a teacher for a student. I really try to suppress any teacher-like urges in class, but there are certain habits such as marking my own answers in red ink, with ticks, crosses and self-commentary, as well as querying ambiguous images and instructions in listening papers which mark me out. Yes, I’m the one who questions the question. (See that critique of the Yamasa system, quite a few posts back, for further proof.)

I also suspect that our adult classroom personae are updates on our school days personae, a bit like watching the crew of the SS Enterprise on their final voyage and spotting the same essential traits from their youth. In my case, these are: occasional bouts of attention-seeking; wanting to be liked my teachers yet sometimes getting anxious and moody (a no-no in Japan) over minor points and throwing in the towel when I don’t 'get it' (teacher speak: he cannot 'access the learning'), a not infrequent occurrence when studying kanji alongside Taiwanese and Chinese nationals; days when I feel I’m the weakest in the class followed by days when I think I’m .. the dog’s bollocks. As a student, too, I need to reflect a bit more on my practice, I think.

As a teacher, I tended to see students as falling into one of two categories. Those who are aware of what they know (the majority), however little that is, and those who are aware of what they don’t (the minority), however little that is. The latter make for self-doubters, the former believe they can take to anything. The latter often get by on attention to detail and thoroughness; the former often get by on unwaivering self-belief and confidence. What they know is all there is to be learned. I fall into the second category (though it does not always appear that way in class).

Here at Yamasa though, there is a more obvious distinction to be drawn. Those who already know kanji (the Taiwanese, the Chinese), and those who don’t. As our studies become more advanced, it becomes increasingly apparent that this second group, to which I belong, really have to burn the midnight oil. The other classmates have it relatively easy, since they already know the written form and associated meanings of thousands of kanji and can concentrate on developing their linguistic and syntactic knowledge (which currently is no more advanced than mine).

It can be frustrating to share classes – i.e. tasks - with classmates whose reading speed differs so greatly from mine. For example, at our weekly ‘elective’ 'Kanji 2' reading class, I seem to be the only student who consistently needs to ask the teacher the meaning of new vocabulary. Even if the Japanese kana is new to the Chinese and Taiwanese, they can often 'process' the meaning from the kanji alone. Yet to me, the texts are so challenging that I regularly find myself asking the teacher for the meaning of a word only to be told it’s the name of a character in the story (alas, without capital letters, there is no reliable way of distinguishing proper nouns from other words).

Pity also that teacher, who somehow has to accommodate these two - warning: another English educational buzzword - 'learner profiles' within one and the same lesson, without neglecting either group's specific needs. It gives rises to all kinds of teaching inefficiencies. She can write up new, previously unstudied kanji when introducing new vocabulary but that's of no use to Westerners without photographic memories (that’s all of us, I think). Or she can use kana (hiragana, katakana), where the Taiwanese and Chinese would usually be better served by seeing the kanji they already know.

At times, this can leave me rather frustrated, given the slow pace I work at compared to many of my (extremely kind and charitable) classmates. I enjoy their company, especially that of the good-humoured Taiwanese, but I have my downer days. I dread the group reading, both of kanji-based texts and katakana (especially when this is a timed activity), as I feel I'm hanging out my weaknesses for all to see. I especially dislike choral reading exercises, which are survival of the fastest, like chasing an echo, and from which the slowest readers learn little other the fact that they are, well, slow readers compared to their classmates. And didn’t most of us at some time feel like that at school?

Teacher, please don’t make me read aloud to the rest of the class

My experience at Yamasa has also confirmed my dislike of parrot-style repetition-based learning. The classes in which we repeat sentences word-for-word and are then expected to recall dialogues from memory - something I am poor at - are the ones which leave me most frustrated. I don’t like rote learning. I’m a slowcoach student and like to work alone, dissecting and connecting, at my own laidback pace (ideally directed, of course, by inspiring and encouraging teachers). The best lessons, and teachers, recognise that knowing why is better than simply knowing, as I'm sure is stated in many more books that I haven't read. Alas, the pressures of prescriptive curricula and 'teaching to the test' often marginalise the role of spontaneous discussion and dialogue in lessons back home, and I certainly didn't always practise what I'm preaching here.

I also like all the fancy stuff like mindmaps and flowcharts and colours that we were tasked to push to students in so-called ‘Learning to Learn’ lessons a few years back (until these became Krypton Factor-style teambuilding sessions with dubious relevance to the original idea), a fad which no doubt will come and go as is typical of the cyclical fashions of pedagogical thinking. I even use coloured pencils. Yes, putting cynicism to one side, I buy in to many of the methodologies hammered home by government to teachers in recent years – especially the greater emphasis given to noting and addressing different learning styles. There’s a lot right in current educational thinking (hey, I’ve rejoined the establishment); it's just a shame there's so much of it.

It may just be that some of my own past students would identify with some of my own experiences here in Japan. Students who ‘didn’t get’ it and sulked as a result. Students who found I was going too fast, and therefore snubbed the process, boycotted the lesson. These were large classes, sometimes as large as 32 per room, so the contexts are not exactly comparable, not least because at secondary school -  unlike at adult language school - the proportion of willing learners will vary from 0% to 100% and you’ve got a fight on your hands getting them on side and on board.

But, in retrospect, the process of becoming a student again has undoubtedly generated some empathy on my part for those students who ‘suffered’ most in my own classes, whether through tedium, excessive challenge or sheer hatred of the subject. Or teacher. (Which is not to say that this was the experience of all!) Forget the frills and the whistles and bells and gimmicks. Irrespective of the content or the age of the learner, the ideal lesson - whether in London or Okazaki - challenges and rewards. If the sense of achievement is shared by the class, then so much the better.

As to my own journey in Japanese, the immediate future is likely to be a solitary one. This is not just because my visa expires at the end of June. (I would like to return to Japan to continue my studies at some stage but will be home in London for at least three months this summer.) As the language we study becomes more advanced, and the learning curve steepens, I suspect it will become increasingly difficult to keep pace with the Taiwanese and Chinese. The road has forked. Those who know kanji: this way. Those who don’t: that.

If there is a downside to studying alongside students of other nationalities, then this is it. Five months into my Japanese study, kanji classes remain ‘optional’ and discreet. If I were studying alongside Westerners only, I guess that this fundamental aspect of the language would have to be integrated into core classes, but here that would entail plenty of wasted classroom time for the Chinese and Taiwanese. So - for the time being - the other students have to get by on self-study (great if you have time for it - but that's unlikely on a course as intensive as Yamasa's).

As a result, my progress in spoken Japanese is now leaving my currently basic knowledge of kanji far behind. I don’t even use kanji in my tests because, with Yamasa’s penalty-based examinations system, it’s much safer to stick with hiragana and katakana. Get the kanji even slightly wrong and you’ll lose the mark. (This is in accordance with Yamasa’s negative marking techniques for examinations, which punish errors but don’t reward use or range of language.) And since I will almost certainly never catch up my Taiwanese classmates, there is always something extra that one could be doing ... but doesn't have time for.

I repeat: I owe Yamasa a lot. It has provided me with excellent value, high-quality education dispensed by supportive teachers in a organised and well-resourced environment. But now it is dawning on me that kanji should be my priority.

So, beyond June, the immediate future is reading, writing and nothing else. It makes sense and I'm looking forward to it. I need to correct my course. Grab a cold towel and sit in a library for a few months. Re-think my flashcards (see earlier post!). I don't even want to be taught kanji, most advanced students will tell you that self-study is the only way. How best to approach this is the key question: the debate essentially being pro-Heisig versus anti-Heisig ( ).

If all goes well, I might just return to acquisition of vocabulary, learning of grammar and … speaking. And possibly, hopefully, one day to Japan.
Don’t boss me around, woman (unless you’re at a sports event)

A couple of posts back, I waffled on about how Japanese language - well, the little that I have studied - mirrors the social conservatism of Japan. Maybe I wrote up those unoriginal observations prematurely, since by far the most eye-opening examples to date came up in the new grammar covered this week.

Bearing in mind that women outnumber men in my class by 9 : 5, it is only a minority of my classmates who may one day need or want to use the standard Japanese ‘imperative’ and ‘prohibitive’ forms. Unless the female majority plan on getting gobby at sports events, that is.

In fact, page 50 of Minna no Nihongo II is one of the most illuminatingly matter-of-fact textbook pages I have ever read. It’s truly a a shame we don’t get much of a chance to discuss the social background and implications of this grammar in class.

To quote the textbook, the use of the imperative form, used to force a person to do something, and prohibitive form, used to command a person not to do something, both of which have ‘strong coercive connotations’, is in most cases ‘limited to male speakers’. The book then lists a number of extremely specific contexts in which it might be used (by men).

1 by a man senior in status or age to a person junior to him, or by a father to his child.

2 between men who are friends.

3. where there is not enough time to be polite, e.g. when men senior in status or age are ‘giving instructions to a large number of people in a factory or during an emergency’.

4 when a command is required during training many people or making students take exercise at schools and sports clubs.

5 when cheering at sporting events. In this case the expressions [below] are sometimes used by women as well. [emphasis added]

6 when a strong impact or brevity is required, as in a traffic sign or in a slogan.

Just in case women in Japan want to tell someone to do something or even not to do something (the temerity!), however, there is another imperative style they can use, both to males and females. No need for men to worry too much about being ordered around though: it is a ‘little gentler’.

But there’s a catch. Even this gentler imperative form cannot be used 'when speaking to a senior'.

Quite how a woman tells a male senior to go away, or not come close, or words to that effect, is anyone’s guess. I would guess that’s pretty important language to know in most male-dominated societies.

So thank God for expletives.

And open-plan offices.

Friday, 28 May 2010


A week on, and I guess people see 'perennial student' in an even less positive light now. Especially if, like me, you studied at Bradford University.

Monday, 24 May 2010

More self-justifying ramblings of the perennial student

Back in October 2009, teaching at an English secondary school, I had absolutely no inkling that, little more than two months later, I would be coming to Japan to study Japanese full-time. Sure, it was a goal I had in the back of my mind, a plan for when the time felt right, but I didn’t expect the right time to come so quickly.

Coming to Japan was as much reaction as it was decision. I have an immense amount of respect for the school in question, and many of its staff, and feel fortunate to have trained there, but my exit was a thoroughly sour and stressful experience. Suffice it to say that, in leaving over an issue of principle, I followed my instinct. (I always go with instinct.) And then I followed my instinct to Japan.

The people who know me were supportive of the steps I took, both away and forward. Yet others may have worried on my behalf as to what this meant for my ‘professional future’. Oh .. the gap on the CV. Oh .. not continuing to hold down a permanent job.

But oh … how I hate to be worried over. They seemed more worried than I was. (At my age, with my family in another country?) Gasp. Maybe some idle tongues have continued to wag.

Well, I was always going to be fine. And, even if I wasn’t, I’d not be fine without regrets. Any perceived risks were risks I was content to embrace. I put in my shifts when I’m in employment, and will make hay when I’m out of it. (Take this literally: I taught my last few years in a windowless room.)

And even if this doesn’t match others’ ideals (of what I should be doing?), I think the take-it-and-leave it mentality, a kind of quid-pro-quo with the British world of work, becomes more socially acceptable with every passing year. (A welcome response to a culture in which no-one is immune from rising expectations of ‘productivity': just ask teachers who must annually defend their record with regard to so-called ‘value-added’ targets at ‘performance management’ meetings before committing to new targets, invariably for the sake of targets.) There is no law of nature that gap years and sabbaticals are once-in-a-lifetime events, any more than getting married -or divorced - are, for that matter.

(The fact that I am playing out this latest jolly in a socially conservative country where the ‘jobs for life’ mentality is ingrained, and whose people commonly postpone globetrotting and ‘dreams’ for retirement, is an irony which has not escaped me.)

So, here, a student again, I have refreshed my thinking, even if the workload and daily onslaught of tests and exams (two big ones today – I worry that I failed one) continue to run down my batteries. I have not been lying on a beach in Okinawa, or playing out delusional gaijin zero-to-hero fantasies in Japanese nightlife (as fun as that may sound). I’m in between jobs, but I don’t know where the next one will be. (England? Japan? Teach foreign languages to the English, or teach English to foreigners?) Ploughing on with French and German, though, in a new school, would have been a mistake. I needed a break.

So why Japan? Because, for all of the cynicism of my posts, it’s a society I admire. There’s also much I dislike about it – in fact, the more I learn (including of its language), the less I like it – but, as a tourist, as me, I enjoy being here. Services are reliable, standards are high, the food is great, people are respectful; regional differences are preserved and savoured; privacy is respected; noise, ‘attitude’ and brashness are not virtues. That was never the case on the top deck of the 111. Obviously, I also like how off-the-wall stuff is so everyday; I never tire of seeing or reading Japan reported in its full quirkiness. (For example, only this morning, breakfast TV was reporting on pet funerals, pet tombs and mobile pet crematoria as if it’s the most natural outlay for the average citizen - after language courses, that is).

What it is like to live here is another question – until I work in Japan, I doubt I can know what living here (as a foreigner, of course) really means. (What do I have give back? What part do I play in maintaining those standards? Am I prepared to give as well as take these services, the consistent excellence of which is taken for granted? )

Most obviously, I came for linguistic reasons. I had been learning romaji-Japanese in weekly evening classes for over a year, and wanted to take things a step further. My original motivation had been to have a go at a non-European (probably Asian) language, and – after my first visit in summer 2008- it was Japanese that grabbed me. Sure, it’s Mandarin Chinese and Spanish which are increasingly the in-demand languages in English schools, but that’s not a reason to want to learn them.

(Tamil seemed just too difficult - and I'd miss the sushi.)

 Tamil sushi?

The challenge of learning new scripts, a new visual dimension to language, requiring new approaches to self-study, also appealed. And despite my struggles with all of this, I've not been disappointed: like the best jigsaws (eh, Mrs B?), it keeps the brain occupied.

I have my highs and lows, my steps forward as well as my steps back, but I sincerely hope and believe that I will still be studying Japanese in five years, and beyond. (Hopefully I'll be able to write more than fifty kanji from memory by then, too.) It’s a labour of love - admittedly, a love which I fall in and out of (that's education, for you) - and I intend to complete the journey. In as much as I ever 'complete' journeys. Or labours of love.

So ... what's up next?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Real life role plays
(curb your abruptness)

Somewhere in his Japan Journals, Donald Richie, a commentator who never resorts to lazy superlatives, describes Japan as the “most conformist nation on earth”. Yes, Japan, with its abundant reserves of imagination and fantasy, resources upon which colossal industries (manga, cosplay ... love hotels, and more) have been built. For what little it's worth, I don't think he's wrong. Well, do any more conformist countries spring to mind?

In a society where escapism is ubiquitous and mainstream, this begs the question: what's being escaped? The answer may be the very conformism noted by Richie: others’ conservative expectations of how things should be done, how real lives should be led. The pressures and conformism of adult society, the shadow of which - in a country where the age of consent is 13 - looms large over childhood and adolescence. (As if to make up for lost time, it’s no coincidence that Japan’s ‘escapism’ industries - most notably the Japanese sex industry - market themselves to adults with an overt infantilism.)

The caveat to the above, tentative reflections is that I’m a recently arrived language tourist with basic Japanese who has never worked – i.e. lived – here and consequently have very little to go on. But if there’s one thing which permits a sightline of the generalisation that is ‘national character’, then surely it’s what I’ve come here to learn: the language.

The German philosopher-linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the first to argue that language could be taken as a barometer of national character and expresses the culture of its speaker. “One of the most important ideas put forth by Humboldt was his concept of linguistic relativity, which stated that the national language and character of a nation are inextricably linked, each providing an insight into the other.” ( ) (For more on this, see also .)

Japanese still represents an interesting (and under-used?) testbed for such theories. As noted here , it is “perhaps one of the ideal languages to investigate how novices are socialized into society through the use of language, for it has rich morphology, and a great deal of social information is encoded in the language (e.g. honorifics, pronouns, and sentence-final particles).”

In another life, on another budget, on an imaginary scholarship, I would love to read and research this further, but for today they’re just some more quotes googled up on a subject I freely admit to not having studied. (Very much in the spirit of this superficial post.) But I can’t think of anything which absorbs what history throws at it better than language does. And from what I’ve been taught, and seen / heard, both inside and outside the classroom, Japanese - a language of subtlety and implication - certainly reflects the conformist model to which Richie refers.

It often strikes me that this is a language used to communicate what the listener expects to hear as much as what the speaker wishes to convey. Where you communicate as much through what you don’t say as what you do. There's some of that in every language, granted, but here it's more pronounced. The order of the role play has be observed. And outside intimate social circles (where the Japanese capacity for irony puts even an Englishman at ease), it is abruptness and self-importance that are the big no-nos. There are ideals and standards to be conformed to.

My textbooks often allude to these conventions of conversation, which are germane to the grammar. They include:-

- leaving off the second half of sentences, for example in situations where you are making excuses or turning down invitations and it is obvious to the listener where the sentence is heading.

- avoiding certain assumptions as to the interlocutor’s mood, willingness or availability (which, in other countries, might be acceptable and inoffensive). For example, in Japan, it’s rather inappropriate to ask (outside close family or friends): “are you free [tomorrow etc]?” Since being busy is the more socially acceptable, anticipated state, one works from the assumption that they are not. “Are you busy tomorrow?"

- if showing disagreement, tread carefully and do it delicately. (I find this difficult. The linguistic re-wiring involved is complex.) Agreement is the ideal, the desired state. Since dissent often equates to impoliteness, one hears a lot of "sou desu ne"s (“isn’t that so”), even where the topic is so uncontroversial or trite that to dispute it would be out of the question. ("Sou desu ne" is also used, rather strangely to my foreign ears, to buy you thinking time in response to a question which you have understood and are taking in.)

- actively showing interest. By regularly peppering your conversation with phatic expressions such as "sou desu ka", you are suggesting that you are listening and paying attention and are interested. It’s quite a difficult skill to pick up; my energies are often so concentrated on understanding and gearing up to respond that I listen to Japanese mutedly, with little reaction, and appear distant. It's a two-way thing, remember.

- opening gambits and icebreakers. The Japanese really out-do the English in making conversation by raising the weather. Stating the obvious is apparently fine to get the conversation off to a start: "mou sugu haru yasumi desu ne" ("it’s soon the Spring holidays, isn’t it?"), "hayai desu ne" (“it’s early isn’t it?”), “ii tenki desu ne” (“nice weather isn’t it?”). Noone will roll their eyes if you use these staples.

- implying that one would like an explanation, guidance or assistance rather than asking for one outright and directly. One of the trickiest things I have learnt so far, this is often conveyed through a grammatical structure (“n .. desu”) which has no intrinsic meaning. You simply build it into a statement and change the verb forms to hint that you’d like some help. E.g. entering a shop, “keitai wo kaitai desu” ("I would like to buy a mobile") does not suggest that you are seeking guidance, yet by adding a ‘n’ after "kaitai" you imply that you do.

- manners and how to show interest in people. It’s your turn to be asking me a question now, he's thinking. But you can’t think of one. Show interest, even in something that doesn't interest you. “What a great spoon. Where did you get it?” Hey, the conversation's back on track.

 If only I could speak like Mike Miller...

I’m only a quarter of a way through my second textbook and yet it never felt like this when I was learning French and German. With those European languages, you said what you wanted to say and listened to others do the same. Here, in Japan, manners and the need to say the right thing, the right way, should always be kept in mind – and we’ve barely touched on honorific language ....

As a result, real life conversation - when I have time for it - with relative strangers can seem rather formulaic, much like a classroom roleplay. And we practise those a lot. It can come close to acting. (The Japanese seem to be good at this in real life – they give little away - but less so in fictional life. Just watch a television drama and you’ll see they ham it up; all exaggerated expressions and reactions.)

It's all a little like the stereotypical politespeak of the English Gentleman, which my American classmates occasionally imitate . “After you, Sir.” “No, after you.” “Sorry.” “No, I’m sorry.” etc etc. A language of flattery (“jouzu desu ne”), humility (“mada mada desu”), embarrassment (“shitsurei desu ga” – I must be rude) and, when there’s a good social reason for doing so, stating the obvious. So to quote not von Humboldt, but those no less renowned linguistic pioneers Bananarama (yes, it’s a cover version, I know), “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results”.

As a Beginner (or should be that Lower Intermediate?), I’m not sure I am getting results. Yet if this makes me sound like a frustrated learner, then far from it. I’m fascinated. And that’s me speaking English.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Senmaida hebi

"Senmaida are a feature of remote areas of Japan that used to be common, but are now increasingly rare since so many of them have been abandoned and have reverted to forests or used for orchards or for crops less labour intensive than rice. A senmaida landscape is exceptionally beautiful, the first time it comes into view it takes your breath away. You can take good photos, but no photo can ever quite capture the scale, the intricacy, or the rustic charm of an living yet ageless landscape."

This description comes from the superbly informative website ( ) of my language school.

Last summer, on the northern coast of the Noto Hanto peninsula, I took a bus from the town of Wajima out to one of the most famous examples of senmaida ('1000 rice paddies'). The following images perhaps serve to confirm that the camera cannot do the landscape justice.

Here, not for the first time in Japan, I saw a small snake.

During Golden Week, I also visited the area around Kanaya, famous for its tea (Shizuoka's green tea is the most famous in Japan) and wasabi. There's a particularly attractive stretch of the JR Tokaido line, east of Kanaya, which is flanked on both sides by intricate senmaida-like tea fields. 

Hillside overlooking Shizuoka. ('Shizuoka Aiport' is close too ... but mercifully you won't hear many planes.)

And, here on a well-preserved stretch of the old Tokaido road, what did we see? Again, a snake. Snow came close to stepping on it.

This time, a large one: 2.5-3m, we estimate. It unhurriedly eased itself off the path and into a hole in the stone wall.

As formidable as they may look, these snakes are harmless. (There is only one venomous snake in Japan, a non-aggressive adder which also poses little risk.) But from the look on Snow's face, at the time, you wouldn't have thought so.