Saturday, March 22, 2008


I went to an exhibit of Hokusai paintings this week. I got to see The Wave and the other "36 Views of Mt. Fuji." It was spectacular.

But the weirdest thing happened while in line. A man heard me and my friend Marie speaking in English. He asked me where I was from. I told him America. And then he said, "Thank you. Thank you." Very emphatically, he said it. And then he hurried back to his place in line before I could ask for what or even say "uh, you're welcome?"

Another American was in line behind me. "That's not the typical response you get when you go abroad," he said with a chuckle.

"Definitely not," I agreed, remembering the little old Belgian lady in Europe who shook her finger at me and said "shame on you" in a menacing tone. There was an anti-war protest going on outside so I suppose that's what prompted his odd display of gratitude, but it was totally random.

Friday, March 14, 2008


March is the season for graduation ceremonies here in Japan. I went to one of my JHS graduations last week and this morning I sat in on the rehearsal for one of my elementary schools. It's a very serious affair to go from the elementary school to jr. high or jr. high to senior high. And even the rehearsals are rigourous.

The kids must sit up straight, looking straight ahead, with both feet flat on the floor and their hands resting on their knees in loose fists. The teachers prowl around, correcting the posture of anyone who slips and starts to slouch, moving hands back to the knees, and kicking feet out from under chairs and back to the front where they belong. Some kids get little speeches of encouragement that end with "gambarre yo." Which loosely translated means "suck it up and be a man yo." I usually sit slouching with one knee bouncing out of control, but even I felt the pressure to sit up and be still. It almost killed me, but if my little first graders could do it, then so could I.

The sixth (or third in jr. high school) graders come in, moving with military precision, bow, and sit down. When they go up to receive their diplomas, they bow, take the certificate one hand at a time, then step back and bow deeply, holding the diploma over their head. Then they turn on their heel and walk stiffly with their paper to the side, the other arm swinging slightly. This is the part where I sleep with my eyes open and/or concentrate very hard on sitting still.

Afterwards there are lots of long boring speeches, which thankfully today I was spared, (unlike last week.) Then the younger students say their thankyous - carefully rehearsed speeches shouted from their seats one person at a time. Then they sing to the graduating class. Then the graduating class remembers all the good times they had, once again with carefully rehearsed speeches. They sing to the younger kids. And then they they all sing together. At my jr. high last week several of the girls got very emotional. Tears streamed down their face as they sang the last song before marching out. I almost cried myself and I don't even know most of their names.

They asked me later what I thought. Omoshirokata, I said. It was interesting. But, very different from American ceremonies, I told them. The thought of the guy at my high school who did a back flip and landed on his face as he walked across the stage to get his diploma sprang to mind. I didn't tell my teachers about him because I don't have the Japanese to explain it. Although I can just imagine their horrified looks if I had.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

I'm lately a Ragkugo star

If I wasn't a local celebrity in Tahara before last night, I certainly am one now.

I went to a rakugo show last night at the cultural center. Before I even got into the theater to take my seat, my friend Hideaki asked if I could please raise my hand when they asked for volunteers. Japanese adults are very much like my Japanese students in that they don't like raising their hand and volunteering for anything. I reluctantly agreed.

The show itself was both entertaining and educational. Rakugo is a traditional form of Japanese comedy that involves a man, a pillow, and a microphone. He tells a story with only a fan and a towel as props and he plays all the characters by himself. You know it's a different person talking because he turns his head slightly and the voices and gestures change from character to character. Lucky for me, this rakugo show was put on by some Japanese-Canadians so it was mostly in English.

My favorite part of the show was the more modern magic section. The last trick involved two wooden bunnies, one white and one black, that the magician "magically" changed colors. It involved him putting covers over them, then asking someone in the audience what color it was, and then when he put it back on the table, he not so subtly turned it around. At the end, people in the front were asking to see the backs of the bunny. "You want see back of bunny? I say, NO!" In the end, he finally let us. "I see you back of bunny." But when he turned them around they were red and yellow. It was a clever trick, and his English was cute.

After the magic show, they taught the audience some rakugo. They made us pretend we were slurping udon noodles. And then they asked for volunteers. A small boy jumped at the chance to go up on stage, so I was off the hook.

Until they asked again.

No one raised their hand, so slowly I looked back at Hideaki and put mine up. I thought I was going up to slurp my non-existent udon, but the guy apparently changed his mind and had me do an entire story. So in front of everyone, I changed characters, made silly gestures, and told a joke about ice cream.

Several junior high students were there, so I know what they'll be talking about next week. And already I have an email from one of my adult students complimenting me on my performance. This in addition to all the people who came up to me afterwards last night and told me good job.