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.
Sakura ebi

Does deep fried shrimp taste any different than usual when eaten on Monday, 3rd May? The queue I'm in seems to think so. Today, the masses, mainly locals, I'm told, have descended upon this fishing port to binge on pink prawn fritters. It's the day of Yui's annual matsuri, a festival which signals the beginning of the sakura ebi season. 

The queue stretches out before us. Even by 9 a.m., the sun is beating down. Naively, I had not anticipated such a wait but it comes as no surprise for Snow and her family, who split into two groups, with her mother and sister lining up for the fresh, uncooked catch.


In the intense sunlight, without a hat, I'm at risk of becoming a pink prawn too. But no pain, no gain. (Is this karma for my Krispy Kreme post?)

"They better taste good", I say, give or take a few moody expletives. Snow seems to think it's worth the wait though. "Here, they're fresh" she says. I'm unconvinced, and can well imagine there's some restaurant in the vicinity of Shizuoka where, with a little planning, one could sit down to eat the same in less time than we spend waiting in line. But here, only I think such thoughts. They're into queueing, and don't reason in terms of wasted time.

A whopping ninety minutes later, and we're in. It's a frying frenzy of industrial proportions, with the fishermens' wives hard at work.

At 200 yen apiece, Snow buys five fritters. Between the two of us, that's a total of 30 minutes' waiting time per tenpura. "They better taste good", I say, give or take even more expletives, which her mother and sister - having now rendezvous-ed with us - won't understand. We eat in the railway underpass, sheltered from the sun.

Surprised that we hadn't raided the stall and bought as much as we could carry, I'm a little confused. Is this all we came for? Snow then explains that a limit of six fritters per group is in place. So why didn't we each purchase six? I suggest the long wait justified the maximum return. But she doesn't think like this. The calculating gaijin, with eyes larger than his stomach, inhabits a different world.

That evening, Snow's mother fries the raw ebi she bought at Yui. It tastes just as good. And here we get to eat them with wasabi mayonnaise. Washed down with a beer. Without queueing.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A Springtime playlist, Okazaki

1 Ulrich Schnauss

I can only do Japanese homework to instrumentals so I’ve been listening to a lot of Plaid, Boards of Canada and Ulrich Schnauss. I saw him supporting Chapterhouse (who I really don’t get but he was dancing like a nutter to them) at the Live 11 Bar in Osaka a few weeks back. Each of his three albums, shortsightedly written off as MOR electronica, are masterpieces. Suddenly The Trees are Giving Way: . No, he doesn't sound like Enya.

2 Now streaming pre-release from the NYT website, The National’s new album - 'High Violet'. On a first listen, the initial tracks sound over-instrumentated, too Arcade Fire, but their albums are always deceptive growers which turn better than good. As at 1 May 2010, you could still listen to ‘Afraid of Everything’, an early stand-out from High Violet. They remind me of Furniture, the Great British unknowns of the late 80s whose corner I fought at grammar school whilst everyone else were into The Mission (etc). . If NYT’s site has since been updated, you can hear it here:

3 The best pop record single of 2009, I still think:
(Royksopp – Happy up Here). But the second track and single off Junior, The Girl and the Robot, runs it close ( ). Alas, after Tracks 1 and 2, the album crashes.

4 New Interpol album on the way. With an eye on my return to London, I hope they delay touring before the Summer. I liked ‘Our Love to Admire’, which Pitchfork ( ) panned, and it sounded especially good live. For the record, the comparisons with Joy Division are way off the mark and the Editors are cheap (English) imitators.

5 If 4. seems a little epic, and one-paced, the Julian Plenti (Paul Banks of Interpol) solo album sailed pretty much beneath the radar but contained some edgy (and patchy) stuff.

6 The most talented solo female artist out there, yet ignored by the British Music Press. Oh dear, what happened to Emilie Simon? Her latest stuff was Kate Bush karaoke.

I used to played her songs to my more mature French classes. Some loved her; others found her annoying. One of them honestly asked “does she actually say “Don’t f**k me” in that song"? (No she doesn’t.)

7. Susume Yokota. Back to the instrumentals. More kanji benkyou then. Japan’s main man for ambient. This (kodomotachi - ) is one of the highlights from Sakura but I preferred Love or Die. Someone’s paired it on Youtube with extracts from ‘Night of the Hunter’ starring Robert Mitchum, a film which also inspired music by Shack and (the late, legendary) David McComb.

[Talking of whom, I missed the Triffids reformation at the Barbican since I’m in Japan, although I’ve got mixed feelings about that particular venture, anyway.]

8 I played their album ‘23’ all through January. Not whilst doing Japanese homework. Blonde Redhead – The Dress. Sound to me like Depeche Mode in their pomp – I mean, before their decline - fronted by a scary, ‘elsewhere’, possessed Japanese who, the lyrics and interviews tell us, likes riding horses. Awesome live. Or

9 Still too good to be massive, The Clientele. . Not background music so I rarely listen to this, officially the Greatest Band in the World (according to English language polls carried out in my street this morning).

10 A classic from the last few years which sounds like a cover version of a classic (which it isn't). (Excuse the whistling, not on the original from Back Numbers).

I still wear my Luna (RIP) T-shirt. This might just be risque in Japan, where Luna is a brand of sanitary towel. I even saw a ‘pink bar’ called Luna Sherry near Shizuoka once.

Haunted house box, Kobe

Thank you to Mia-san, Toyota, for her hospitality and research. (Excuse the photography.)
I have now spent a cumulative total of six months in Japan, and never had an argument. Neither have I witnessed one. The closest I have come was a dirty look when I cut across a cyclist's path.

One early morning in Fukuoka, in summer 2008, I did once arrive at the after-scene of a fight. Within a short while, no less than four police cars had arrived and the two - yes, only two - brawlers were arrested. This was the kind of thing which would have been ignored in Ealing Broadway, England, on a Friday night.

Why is day-to-day life so peaceful? In a society where agreement is the ideal, even expected, it seems that everyone is at pains to out-apologise one another, even when entirely devoid of blame. Take this experience with hotel staff, who will do their utmost to uphold a guest's honour: Two years ago, during summer, I returned to my hotel in Kumamoto, Kyushu, and asked mistakenly for what turned out to be the wrong room key number. Remembering I was a guest, the receptionist obliged yet, when I returned red-faced having entered another guest's room, she was profusely sorry. I had been badly let down.

This rejection of annoyance and negative vibes works like mind over matter. "I'm not going to look accusingly at that clumsy blonde gaijin cyclist, and somehow now the tension's diffused and forgotten." (Well, just the once, it didn't happen.) In Japan, how to react is an art - one which I'm far from having perfected - and feelings follow suit.

Does this mean that the Japanese are a polite people? Not necessarily. A people who go out of their way to help others? Again, no. This isn't Syria. A couple of months ago, I watched a blind man negotiate with some difficulty his way along station platforms and up escalators, without a single passenger offering assistance. At Okazaki station one Saturday evening, I also witnessed a quietly inebriated man pass out when stepping out from a train and crash head first on to the hard platform. (Japanese drunkards, inevitably male, can rarely be accused of outwardly anti-social behaviour though.) Noone rushed to help him up; people skirted around him, as he lay there after a shockingly violent fall. Another passenger heading up on the escalator was even recording it on his mobile phone. When finally helped up by two young Japanese, he had an appalling facial cut which would have called for medical attention, yet - regaining consciousness -what did he say? "gomennasai". ("Pardon me.")

What the Japanese do is give you space. No hassle, no hard sell, nothing in-your-face. (Unless its a hard pavement.) But once they've given you that space, they're going to think twice before re-entering it.
Taken for a ride

On a summer’s day, in a country where living space is relatively constrained, one might think that a day out at the park would provide respite from flashing lights, thuds and bleeps, animation, Japan. This is certainly true of many of Japan’s urban green spaces as well as, at first sight, Okazaki’s ‘South Park’, where I occasionally go for a run. Not at weekends, though. Across the small lake, there’s a mini-funfair, with rides and (of course, the ubiquitous) ferris wheel. It is truly a park of two halves.

I pity the parents. Even if they bring their children here for some fresh air and a walk in the woods, it’s likely that they’ll be digging into their pockets for something loud and plasticky too.

How about a shopping trip? Well, on the second floor of Wingtown, which is nothing more than a mini-mall, there are two separate arcades targeted exclusively at kids: the gaudy, noisy, flashing Nicopa, one of which – called Heartful Square – is an immense child-“friendly” games centre. I think of it as Pachinko for Beginners, Gambling for Boy Scouts. Addiction begins here, with a family outing, so lose yourself in the noise.

Heading back along to the Valor supermarket, at least here there’s the chance of a free ride: here you can pick up a colourful, cartoony shopping trolley to whizz your toddler around in. Everywhere you go, Japan is geared up for youthful escapism. For better or for worse, fantasy sits alongside the mundane.

There are days when I actually like the Japan that I have described above. But it's me that sounds a little hopeless today, isn't it?