Today is the first of June and frustratingly it seems like the weather gods could not wait even an extra minute before exposing their awesome powers and beating the sun down on Japan. My irritability levels have increased and this in no small part related to the smugness of my colleagues who have been rabbiting on about the wondrous seasons in Japan and the importance of wearing the correct clothes in the correct season. If only there had been a freezing cold wind today or even a drop of rain!

But, putting my irrational irritations to one side, the blue skies and the bleached white shirts (almost every student is without a blazer today) are a welcome transformation. Brightness is something I'm still getting accustomed to after such a long winter.

Anyway in a few minutes when lunch time is over and things quieten down I am going to head outside with my book and find somewhere to read in the sun. In an ideal existence this place would be completely student free but I will endure the interruptions to my reading and my quiet contemplations because the alternative to sitting outside is much worse. If I spend another class free afternoon sitting at my desk looking at and having to listen to the rambling mumbles of the senile and deranged (teachers)I will be tempted to steal a giraffe and set it free in the kitchen area.

Favourite Japanese Character
I've only been in work for twenty minutes and already my head is pounding. I blame the ever changing weather - humid, cloudy and heavy air one minute, sunshine and a cool breeze the next. Anyway I have started the morning on a positive note by bribing the English teacher with an Apple and Cinnamon Twist flavoured tea bag. In return I was given a small piece of chocolate. I defy anyone to describe my working relationships as shallow.

So back to the chocolate. I thought perhaps a sugary morsel will help lift my headache and see it float away to torment someone else. Good. But when I opened the lovely wrapper (decorated with compulsory cute Japanese cartoon character) I found the shape of the chocolate tempting me into guilt and not the expected joyous sensation of glutony. The urge to chuck the chocolate in the bin came quite forcefully. I fought this urge and gobbled down the chocolate of course but surely the intention of the chocolate makers wasn't to put people off chocolate. Why then was it in the shape of a grinning toothpaste tube holding a toothbrush?

I know I've not finished the previous entry but...

I've come across something which is relevant (kind of). This time it's not Japan ranting about patriotism but that wannabe PM Gordon Brown. This was back at the beginning of the year but it is always a good time to highlight the fact that even if Tony Blair sods off the Labor Party will still be shit.

Brown wants a national British day...his argument following the "everybody else has one, why can't we?" line. He seems to think that this would be a wonderful thing for Britain...he apparently wants Britain to be like America, where "having the US flag hanging in your garden is commonplace".

Frontline ( cleverly notes that:

"What Brown and his allies seem to have overlooked is that many of the national days celebrated throughout the world are themselves celebrations of liberty from oppression, colonialism and independence from foreign domination. And for many countries the national day is a celebration of the ending of British rule.

The list includes Australia (Jan 1st), The Bahamas (July 10th), Barbados (November 30th), Botswana (30th September), Canada (July 1st), Cyprus (October 1st), The Gambia (February 18th), Ghana (March 6th), Guyana (February 23rd), India (January 26th), Kenya (December 12th), Malaysia (August 31st), Myanmar (November 24th), Nigeria (October 1st), Seychelles (June 18th). The degree of separation from Britain differs in these states, some still have the Queen as head of state, but they can all still celebrate independence."

Enough said. (and I haven't even mentioned the bit where Brown said "I’ve talked to many people on my visit to Africa and the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over...we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it.")

High speeds in less time
An article on at the end of April described Japan's newly approved Patriotic Bill as "a change sought by conservatives who want patriotism in schools but opposed by those who see parallels with militarism". Well from my own experience of teaching in Japan I think militarism is already thriving.

Apologies for lifting more straight from Reuters but this bill will compel schools in Japan to promote "an attitude that respects tradition and culture, loves the nation and the homeland that have fostered them, respects other nations, and contributes to peace and development of international society".

Assuming we can disregard the platitudes towards the end which shoddily attempt to make the bill appear positive towards internationalism, then we are left with one important question. What practical means do the proponents of this bill envisage teachers employing to foster such 100% wholesome patriotism? The prospects leave me scared on two levels. One is theoretical...I am anti-nationalism as much as I am anti-organised religion and I could rant all day about my reasons but they would be a repetition of already well-worn intellectual debates. My other level of fear is kindled by the reality of my life in a Japanese High School and it is this I'd like to discuss in more detail.

Cheer practice is the most obvious demonstration that Japan's high school militarism is already alive and kicking. Last month the new school year began in Japan and with it came the arrival to my school of two hundred fresh faced, lively and most importantly, cheerful teenagers. The new students had an energy and an enthusiasm I hadn't yet been fortunate enough to observe. It was a shock to have hands go up in class and happy volunteers for demonstration activities. I wondered how it was that in three months they could be like the subdued, apathetic, shattered souls that sat before me while I stumbled through my self introduction classes in my first weeks as an ALT last July.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the way English is taught in Japanese schools and in particular the way I feel like a wasted resource and despite the knowledge I've gained about how hard the students are compelled to study and participate in club activities after school, I still found it hard to imagine that spirits could be snapped so quickly. But this was because I had never observed cheer practice in its full, formidable manifestation. Experiencing cheer practice on a large scale, with every student in the school participating was not only surreal but made me dizzy in my alarm.

As I watched the perfect rows of teenagers, all standing tall (even the girl on crutches), all chanting in unison, all straining their voices to the limit, all expressionless, all with perfectly co-ordinated gestures, I felt scared. Their sound made my ears hurt, I could feel the wall behind me vibrating, the sound of the pelting rain I could see through the windows was drowned out completely. This Cheer Ceremony lasted nearly two hours which would have seemed to me a cruel amount of time to force students to stand and shout for if I wasn't already aware that the students had been made to do cheer practice every afternoon all week in preparation for this moment. Now that is cruel. One boy I spoke to, with a teacher helping to translate, told me that because he was in the Cheer Club he had had to practice for seven hours in one day.

The warped reasoning that, in the case of screaming, practice makes perfect was enough to leave me astounded but after experiencing the Cheer Ceremony I felt dissatisfaction with school in Japan for a more significant reason than the everyday irrationalities. Amongst ALTs I have met there is a pretty general consensus that the club activities after school sound good in theory but in practice leave most students exhausted and stressed out due to the long hours of practice each week and the dedication which is demanded of each student. Another view which has been widely espoused is that club activities seriously diminish the importance of the individual and exaggerate the importance of the group, enjoyment is not important but success as a team is, and in flooding all the students free time with club activities after school and weekend club commitments this philosophy becomes a part of how students behave all the time, not just at club.

The individual is not important. According to several ALTs I've spoken with this leaves them with an uneasy feeling that Japan has a ready made army, in the words of one ALT "all you need to do is replace the baseball bats with guns". Now I'm not suggesting that this is indeed the premeditated intention of the Japanese government or the Ministry of Education but the very fact that it is felt by many ALTs surely suggests that there is an air of militarism already interred into the Japanese school system.

So back to my original fear - what methods will they now dream up to impose patriotism even more fervently onto teenagers?

Argh.....I haven't time to finish this but I will post it anyway although I'm coming back to it to add a bit about what on earth they are chanting about!!! Although I think the content of the chants doesn't matter because the act of exhausting yourself while shouting them is sufficient to remove the individual from the equation....ranty thoughts tagged onto the end of this must stop now....damn the time!

I took my time but here it is...what they are chanting about...dun dun duh...COURAGE. And other stuff about being strong.
(added 22nd May 2006)

my salad days
It is officially the holidays in 18 minutes! Golden week may mean chaotic traffic situations and overpriced onsens but I'd rather endure 8hours on a train than 8 pointless hours at school!

This school term has so far only heightened the tingling, panicky sensation that I gotta get out of this place! 22days of school have passed during this new term and I have had a total of 16 classes. Over a three week period I should have 36 classes minimum according to my timetable. So why have two thirds of my classes been neglected? Well a variety of idiotic reasons. The main one is that rather than have a teensy weensy opening ceremony and then leave things be and so allowing the new first years to adapt to life in Senior High at their own relaxed pace, instead of settling them quickly into the routine of classes and allowing them to get to know their teachers and gage what is expected of them...we have STUFF. Its the best word to describe it, really. We have had sports demonstrations, sports ceremonies, days of non stop Hitler Youth role play (sorry, I mean "cheer practice"), sports tournaments, cleaning days, cheer ceremonies, teachers meetings, dentist check ups, doctors check ups, visits from the parentals, and to top it all off even at times where things are on some level normal and classes are on my colleagues keep fobbing me off.

"No team teaching today" is my most hated phrase, especially when I hear it precisely 58seconds before the class is to begin. ARGH! I often wonder how the JTEs actually get the words 'team teaching' out of their mouth...surely it scratches at the back of their guilt-dried throat?! But they manage it with ease as long as it is attached to the words "No", "Cancelled" or "I forgot".

Note: It is probably necessary to make it clear that in a different environment I would welcome the variety of ceremonies and activities at the beginning of a would introduce students to the wondrous resources of their new school, it would allow for a more laid back start to what could otherwise be a very intimidating experience. However, in Iwate, Japan the opposite is true - at least from what I've observed. This 'stuff' serves only to turn genki teenagers into shattered, frowning, mindless robots. When I watched 'cheer practice" I felt complete dread...the phrase "sick to the stomach" actually meant something to me. But as my 18minutes are nearly up I will have to leave a proper description of this bullying, brain washing hell for later.

woke up, got outta bed...
The weekend arrived and I was relieved as usual. Owing to being free of the office last Wednesday and Thursday I wasn't exhausted on friday evening so suggested to Alan that we go for a walk before it got dark. We met with Jason and he took us to a park that I never even knew existed. It was a pretty park, very landscaped and with a good view of Senmaya (I discovered Senmaya's attractiveness is vastly improved by observing it from a distance). We stood under cherry trees, their blossoms just appearing and looked out over Senmaya for a bit then Alan discovered a Flying Fox to keep him amused. We then took a walk to the town hall where there were more cherry trees.

On our way we spoke (or rather Jason spoke and me and Alan observed) to a ginger cat who looked at us with curiosity and proceeded to run away as though insulted by our presence! A second later we turned a corner and a woman coming from the other direction broke into a run as soon as she passed us so it seems the cat wasn't the only one not expecting three gaijin to be lurking around the streets of Senmaya on a Friday night. It was dark when we got to the town hall and spotlights had been turned on to aid nighttime Sakura viewing. It was nice to see families making a fuss of the cherry blossoms. It is always great to see families spending time together in Japan. Children are treated as humans and not babied and knowing the precious little time parents (especially dads) get to spend with family it is quite a privilege to see the whole family together and happy.

We took some photos and Jason had me and Alan pose so he could practice his portrait photography. The end results were impressive but have nothing to do with the photo's subjects!

The three of us were hungry and so headed to Yotaki...however, and incident with a rude man who stole our table (the last table in the place) meant we had to eat elsewhere. We went to a Korean place which was fantastic and sold Iwate Pale Ale! Iwate Pale Ale is a fizzy but not entirely un-enjoyable experience. Again Japanese families were out to impress us as we saw a mum and dad chasing their little girl round and round in circles in the car park. All three looked delighted. The pointlessness of the game - which had no beginning, no end, no rules,no purpose - made it all the more enchanting.

On Saturday it was actually hot...I was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and did not need to put on a jumper all day! As proof of this weather here is a photo of the Married Rocks in Senmaya taken on Saturday:

Alan and me headed to Kitakami to watch V for Vendetta. After the cinema we took a walk alongside the river which is an impressive size and I liked it because it made me feel like I wasn't in Japan anymore. On the way back we had Miso Ramen in Don at Ichinoseki Station. Miso Ramen is soooo good! I've become obsessed by it. So obsessed that I'm actually happy when there is over 30mins wait at Ichinoseki for the next train.

On Sunday we had a lazy morning and went to the park in the afternoon. All was going well, I was reading my book and Alan playing his DS when the kids in the park got bold. The most adventurous of the kids surrounded Alan and began to stroke his beard. I've never been so grateful for Alan's ginger beard as it meant they left me alone! On boy proceeded to take Alan's DS and wouldn't give it back. Another started climbing all over Alan. About three kids started offering me handfulls of frayed stringy stuff which tasted fishy. We made our escape after enduring the kids for as long as was necessary for politeness.

In the evening we watched Doctor Who (woo hoo, ahem, not). Then we met Jason and his friend Ian for Yotaki cheeseballs and some varied conversation ranging from atheism to psychology, brain damage to monkeys, copyright to the masons....oh and whiskey. This was followed by an hour of karaoke which is why I feel like crap in school today. Thank god my first class was canceled!

Moon Soon
On Saturday afternoon me and Alan were at Senmaya train station about to head off to Morioka. The weather was gorgeous with blue sky and sun actually strong enough to feel warm. We spotted a cat in the yellow grass down beside the train tracks. From it's posture it looked like it was half contemplating a hunt but more than that it wanted just to snuggle down and get cozy amongst the grass. We were laughing about how it looked fat for a cat in Japan and how it was lazy when it pounced. A second later it was proudly carrying a rodent the size of its head. The cat padded on down beside the tracks and then jumped onto the train platform. It crossed the platform, a second set of tracks and a road before disappearing off down an alley. What a cat! I was impressed...and as it walked we had realised it wasn't fat just gigantic. It had the build of a lioness.

On the train to Morioka all the seats face inwards so that you are always facing someone. The train was busy, filled with an amusing procession of balding salary men with terrible comb-overs, mad Japanese tourists with gigantic black sunglasses and techni-coloured hats, high school students, boys in baseball uniforms (all three with shaved heads and bright green puffer jackets) and girls of indeterminate age (14-30) whose fashion is a nightmarish blend of little bo-peep with the Grand High Witch (and more often than not a Garfield t-shirt tossed on for good measure). I kept myself entertained for an hour of the journey by watching a blushing high school boy repeatedly make his way up the carriage to talk to a girl who sat hiding her smile behind her hand. The boy would ask one question of her, she would reply and giggle, his blush would intensify and he would lumber on back to his friend who was standing in an I'M COOL manner at the other end of the carriage. This continued until the boy and girl had got to the stage in their association where they could sit next to one another. His face was still flushed and her hand still covered her smile but whatever was going on between them seemed destined to continue beyond this one meeting as she stepped off the train at Hanamaki and he waved shyly. The train started up and he was accosted by his friend for details.

Saturday evening in Morioka was a mad event involving way too many ALTs in a random restaurant called Moon Soon followed by a record breaking attempt at puri-kura (i.e. 25 people in a photo booth). Somehow we managed to stay out until 4am drinking gin and tonics and talking about god knows what. The next day me, Alan and Maire went to Mister Donuts and sat in a trance for about an hour before going for a walk and getting pizza. We misstimed the bus back to Senmaya and so had two hours to kill before the next one. So we bought Haribo at the international shop and then went for a walk by the river. Morioka actually has some charm now the snow has melted and spending the afternoon watching ducks swim about was nice and relaxing despite the hangover.

At the riverside were two joggers - a man and a woman in matching tracksuits. The joggers chose a stretch of path that might take five minutes to walk and jogged repeatedly up and down for the two hours we were there. Alan suggested that they had read it is healthy to jog for half an hour a day but were too busy the rest of the week and so ran for the full 3 and a half hours every Sunday. I can find no solution more satisfactory but it still doesn't account for their choice of up and down in preference to running all over the place and experiencing variety. Also by the river was a boy and his guitar and a couple of mad girls wearing skirts and leggings who hung out by a concrete slope occasionally stretching their legs as if warming up for a race but never moving more than three feet in any direction.

Attempting to get on the bus to Senmaya turned out to be more tricky than necessary as a woman in a neon orange waterproof jacket and white gloves took charge and insisted on a long 10second gap between each passenger jumping aboard the bus. When it came to my turn she actually put her hand in front of me so that without physically abusing her I was unable to get onto the bus even a second early. Two hours and thirty minutes of recorded messages for simpletons telling you to remember to walk off and on the bus carefully and we were home.

where are you cherry blossoms?
Spring has begun with big splodges of daffodils and a thinner, more random scattering of other flowers: primroses, crocuses and some others I haven't the confidence to name. The point is no more winter! I could have typed this last friday but I wanted to wait and be sure the Gods of Iwate didn't have a change of heart and start the whole Ice9 business again. So in tangent with spring flowers come spring insects...I have seen one spider so far but one is enough. I've also heard an account (and unwittingly been subject to a viewing of its squashed remains) of a giant evil spider that had taken up residence INSIDE a house in the Ohara area. Stephen Fry informs me (well the television viewing world anyway) that spiders like classical music but build their evil, nasty webs as far away from the sound of Hip Hop and Techno as they can. So all I need to do is develop an unhealthy obsession for Carl Cox, Grandmaster Flash and MC Hammer, and I'm saved!

Last Thursday a small incident made me possibly the happiest I have been in the last 8 months (apart from when me and the ginger bearded one were sitting on a rickety wooden platform over the river in Bangkok and drinking beer while waiting for the platform to collapse and us to plunge into the murky water). I was walking to the train station after school when I heard someone shout "Kathleen sensei". The students at my high school all call me K or Miss K (if they call me anything at all) so I knew it couldn't be one of them. I turned and saw a boy of about 7years old...he is from the elementary school in Surisawa (which I have visited only a handful of times). So I waved and smiled and shouted "Hello, konnichiwa!" back at him. He waved and then ran off towards home. That was it but it made me happy. If only JET was focused on elementary school teaching I think the difference in my own personal experience of Japan but also in the English ability and cultural awareness of the young people in Japan would be enhanced significantly. Ok mini lecture on to Ichinoseki.

I'm just back from Ichinoseki where me, Alan and Jason shopped and ate sushi. The sushi was fantastic and I managed to get myself a groovy new pair of trainers so this summer I won't look crazy wandering around in leather ankle boots. Hurrah for Ichinoseki (just this once mind, I'm still not a big fan of a city with no nightlife, no cinema and no character).

striped shirts and Montagny
My mind is a blurry whirl of Hemingway, biru dai joki, Power On 2 (english textbook) and Aberfeldy. It is not the best time to be updating on here but then recently there is never a good time.

A small update on the new teacher situation - I'm 50minutes from my first team teaching class of the new year and my duties were seemingly diminished to tape recorder when the sensei explained we were doing reading practice and that I would be required to help with pronunciation. However, a few minutes later he made me aware that reading practice wouldn't take long and so I was lucky to have lots of time to do fun activities with the class. Fair enough except he won't tell me how long I have for the fun activities and they need to be related to two paragraphs about tea. That's right tea and fermentation of tea is his chapter of choice for 3B. This all wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't concluded our conversation with "It is a boring chapter." The man has been given free reign over 3A and B...he doesn't even need to use textbooks if he doesn't want to. This is a rare opportunity to actually teach a class enjoyable and useful English. My new frustrations with teaching aside though and this sensei is pretty cool. He brought a peach coloured candle to work today (his "treasure"). He sits beside me and has the ability to interact with me enough so that we are on friendly terms and I understand what is going on at school more than ever before but at the same time he manages to leave me alone enough so that I can relax and do my own thing for most of the day. One thing worries me though - while I sit here typing he is singing the school song quietly to himself. Surely that isn't healthy.


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