Friends, i.e. people you have nothing in common with

Having no routine allows you to see the things around you as if for the first time. Since we closed our school, we’ve both had a lot of time to discover things that have actually been around us for years and we never registered or took the time to interact with.  I’ve had analogous experiences on our two-week vacations in the US, in which I go to places that were always nearby for the first 24 years of my life but just never saw as interesting enough to stop playing Diablo 2 for.

In that spirit, between the time we quit our jobs and started the final rush of cleaning and packing that has culminated in us waiting at Haneda International Airport as I write this, we’ve finally made friends in Japan.  Not students, not students’ parents, but people who we like and who like us without wanting much in return.  This is as rare as a full armor set drop in Normal Difficulty.  Sorry, my Diablo schema got activated.

If that assessment of the rarity of friendship sounds pathetic, note that it seems to be universal around here.  Many of the people we voluntarily spent time with mentioned that they also didn’t usually see people outside of work, or commented on how it was nice that people like us could hang out although “we have nothing in common”.  In Japan, “in common” generally means the small palette of formal identifiers that people make their public selves.  Not equally being part of some purposeful, formal human gathering like a workplace means that you have no reason to talk, let alone care about each other. If you think you really are friends with your JTE or other Japanese colleagues, see how many of them keep contact with you, or even wave back if you see them in a restaurant, after you quit or move.

I tend to think the totally non-operational friendships are more valuable.  I value the relationships I had with my students, but I don’t think most of them knew me as the sometimes cranky, self-absorbed, attempted intellectual that I am (though a few do).  The people we’ve met since we stopped being teachers seem not terribly interested in what we can do for them, and blessedly, not interested in English.

We’ve landed now, and it’s unlikely that I’ll see many of these people again soon.  What guarantees that if we do, we will still be able to have a good time is that we got together in the first place for no particular reason.

2 years as Chapter President

As I write, I’m still technically JALT Shizuoka Chapter President, and will be until late November, when the next batch of officers officially take up their duties and hopefully I’ll be getting over my jet lag in California.  I’ve uploaded what will probably be the final batch of events into our online schedule and am wondering where they’ll hold the Xmas party this year.  It has put me in mind to recount the good and bland times I’ve had in this position, and maybe put some lame duck recommendations on the record as well.

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Stuff I will miss

We’re entering the home stretch of our 12-year stay here in Japan – counting down the days until we fly, mercifully just before the holiday season officially starts.  Like I’ve said before, life in Japan is much nicer when you don’t work and especially when you don’t work in eikaiwa, and my last few months have been filled with good times.  With that in mind, here is a list of the (mostly edible, non-human) things I anticipate missing once we’re gone.

  1. Varieties of tofu – in addition to the usual “firm” and “silken”, there are fried bricks of tofu, sliced fried tofu, and a tofu-based substance that comes in a variety of shapes called ガンモドキ ganmodoki, “fake goose”.
  2. Service, when I’m in a hurry.  If I want to chat, I like American service.  Service in Japan is not with a smile – it is usually without any expression whatsoever besides automatized formality, but quick and professional as long as you want something exactly as offered.
  3. People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public.  Easier to say this after not riding the train for a few months.
  4. Natto. Not the most popular dish with expats and immigrants but I love almost anything made of beans.  I am not however a fan of the sweet beans, either red or black, that pass for dessert ingredients here.
  5. Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  Baked goods in Japan, contrary to image, are generally very sweet and laden with butter.  Kurumipan is slightly sweet, not heavy, and scattered with pieces of walnuts, which make any food instantly good.
  6. Cheap paper.  For some reason.  Ditto white board markers.
  7. The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity. Of course, I won’t miss how much you have to pay for quality here.
  8. Citrus.  There is a lot of citrus from Asia which is yet unknown or less common in the US – besides kumquats and tangerines, there are things called dekopon, shiikwaasa, and kabosu which I like a lot.
  9. The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation.  For an ESL/EFL teacher it helps when errors are easy to explain.
  10. Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Labradors and Golden Retrievers are popular here too.  Akitas are less popular than one would guess.  I have never seen a Boxer, 10th most popular breed in the US.  Chihuahuas and Toy Poodles (called トイプー toipuu) are among the most popular breeds, and them I shall not miss.
  11. The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  If anything, voters here seem to want politicians that are as little like themselves as possible.
  12. Mini Stop.  I will be thinking fondly of Mini Stop’s annual rollout of Belgian Chocolate Ice Cream (ベルギーチョコソフト berugii choko sofuto) next fall.  Same for ハロハロ haroharo in the summer.
  13. Shocking students with root beer candy.
  14. Indian food.  Indian food in Japan is probably better than Japanese food in India.
  15. The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  You get over surprising people with stuff like “The capital used to be in Kamakura” that they just didn’t expect you to know pretty fast.  It is still fun to give them something like “Japan isn’t even in the top 10 for rice consumption worldwide” or “less than 40 percent of Americans own guns”.  Unlike many Americans, people here don’t generally regard confident ignorance to be just as good as education.
  16. On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle.
  17. Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  At least outside.  Inside I will be happy to finally have insulation.
  18. Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.IMG_3042.JPG
  19. A few beers, particularly Shiga Kogen IPA and other beers from Tamamura as well as our local Bayern Meister Bier.  Most supermarket beers are overpriced – you might think $6 for a six-pack is a fair price in the USA for Kirin (which contains rice and corn starch) but $2.50 for one can is what they go for here.
  20. The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers.  Well, when you think about this state of affairs even a little bit it starts to taste a bit sour, but if I spend too long freelancing in the US I may start to miss this lucrative form of discrimination.
  21. In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Expectations are such here that just getting a class to do something besides stare at their desks is considered a victory.  Many, many teachers in Japan worship Dörnyei and regard his work as more salient to their lives than such insignificant details as grammar or natural usage.
  22. Having the time to blog like this.

Compensatory matcha

A JALT colleague shared with me a story about his university students and ice cream.  As a class project they’d taken a poll of which flavor ice cream was the class favorite, and it turned out to be matcha, or green tea.  When asked why, they responded, “Because we’re Japanese”.  My colleague wondered then, “So why do you eat ice cream?”

(Is the reason marketers prefer the term matcha (powdered green tea, rarely drunk) rather than sencha (infused green tea, the most popular) or ryokucha (just “green tea”), the same as the reason all tomato-flavored things in the US are invariably described as “sun-dried tomato”?)

An especially thick matcha ice cream.  “A sophisticated bitterness that only adults understand.  The moment you put it in your mouth, amazement and sensation spread.”  Note the abundance of kanji and serious-looking font, denoting class.

There is a process of domesticating unfamiliar or clearly foreign products which involves adding one or two “Japanese” ingredients and marketing them as reborn in Japan.  This is a way of compensating for their foreignness, a kind of ablution to prepare foreign products for the Japanese marketplace.  I buy a kimchee that happens to be vegetarian that advertises itself as “suited to Japanese mouths”.  Bakeries sell bread made with rice flour, and not because of gluten-phobia.  MOS Burger and McDonald’s periodically bring out ostentatiously Japan-themed burgers marketed with all the subtlety of a July 4th fireworks show.  All manner of creamy desserts and pastries use either matcha or the combination kinako (a kind of powder made from soybeans which tastes like very finely crushed peanuts) and brown sugar, which for some reason is thought to be Japanese.  All of these function as the spoonful of wa to help the Western food go down.

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Haafu, pt. 4 – authenticity in the red

(parts 2 and 3)

The “self” in “self-hating ____” is not really you.  It’s the version of you that other people think you’re supposed to be, based on what you look like and where your ancestors came from. “Self-hating” is an accusation of not living up to stereotype.

Rejecting, ignoring or simply not taking the necessary years to learn the culture and language of your grandparents is not an act of self-abnegation, because your grandparents are not you, and the version of you that you’d be denying is from an alternate dimension where language and culture are passed down genetically.

You’re born in suburban Michigan to parents who both speak English.  You grow up around friends who also speak English.  You half-heartedly study Spanish in high school.  What part of this picture inclines you naturally to know Vietnamese, Korean, Polish, or any other language, just because your last name is not Anglo?

The accusation of being inauthentic or self-hating for not embracing the culture of one’s ancestors is seldom leveled at people in the ethnic majority.  Only minorities are made to feel they must justify their existence by contributing some ethnic spice to vanilla Americanism.  No one calls Dwight Eisenhower or Andy Richter self-hating for not learning German.

Yes, learning a second language is always good, and a language that someone in your family already speaks may seem to be a natural candidate.  If you’re not burdened with the expectation that your whole identity is wrapped around your minority ethnicity, it makes sense to make progress, however meager, toward a second language that perhaps you have a unique amount of access to.  But as a nominal member of the group whose language that is, taking a step towards learning it doesn’t mean going from 0 to 1. It means going from -100 to -99.

I don’t look very Japanese, and most people in Japan when they hear my last name assume I got it by marrying into a Japanese family. That is, I’m a gaikokujin learning Japanese, and my account balance on language skill is positive.  When people hear that it’s actually the last name I was born with, they have a moment of “oh, so that’s why…” and their perception of me changes.  The explanation for my language ability becomes genes rather than effort and I transform from mildly proficient to a curiously deficient.

It might have been easier for me, and I suspect many minorities, to simply avoid “their” language and avoid putting that negative balance on the books.

Born in debt.

Self-fulfilling prophecies in “high level” schools

Folks in Japan are very sensitive to the issue of high schools, to the point where it is a sort of mild taboo to ask someone which one they went to if they have reason to think you know the academic rankings of high schools in their hometown.  It’s something like common sense here that which high school you went to shows how smart and successful you are, much like universities around the world, to the point that you actually write your HS alma mater on your resumé here in addition to your university and graduate school.

High schools make some sense as gauges of academic ability – they’re not technically mandatory (although 95% enroll) and you need to take a test to get into them.  High-ranked ones do indeed yield vastly improved chances at getting into college (see below).  Parents of teenagers can be heard talking about the quality of education at this or that high school in the city, planning which HS entrance exams to take (in my area, you can only take one public HS entrance exam, encouraging people to aim a bit low on the principle of better safe than sorry). If there is a private HS, people will consider it sort of a get-out-of-jail-free card for university entrance exams (or as a reader pointed out to me after this post went up, they will in my area and maybe not yours), as enrolment at private HS, JHS or elementary practically guarantees a spot in its affiliated university, the highest step in a so-called “escalator school”.  This raises an issue of how matriculation at those universities can mean anything if students effectively tested in at age 12, but that’s one for another day.

(Ok, so if kids are basically guaranteed admission to a university after they get into its affiliated HS, JHS, elementary school or even preschool, how can these institutions still be status-bearing?  They might offer good programs but the main thing that justifies their prestige is the difficulty of their entrance exams, and in the case of escalator schools everyone knows a significant portion of the undergrad population was sorted in before even hitting puberty.  I know I’m basically affirming academic credentialism by complaining about this, but a little consistency isn’t too much to ask.  I’ve known kids who tested into these escalators at the higher steps and they always hated the ones who got in on the ground floor, who they felt were lazy and entitled from years of no competitive pressure.  Again, not that competition ought to be the point of education, but when the system is premised on the battle to beat the statistical average of an entire country of test-takers, things like this along with AO and “recommendation” admissions threaten the validity of entire enterprise on its own terms.)

What puzzled me for a long time was how wide the gap in academic strength is from one HS to the next, when they don’t differ by economic class of the areas they serve (since students can test in from any area) and nominally have to follow the general national curriculum.  I have a theory on this I already kind of gave away in the title but which I’ll spell out in a bit more detail below.

Continue reading “Self-fulfilling prophecies in “high level” schools”

A Taxonomy of Engrish

I spent most of my time in Japan regarding Engrish as a ridiculous phenomenon, a national joke that I was in on and the actual nation wasn’t, and probably also symptomatic of some more serious problems (how serious can you take English education in Japan seriously when the new nationwide social welfare system is called “My Number”?).  Little did I know, I was painting with too broad a brush.  There certainly is some Engrish that shows just how little regard there is in Japan for English as a language. Hidden among all the nonsense T-shirts though there is some Engrish that represents genuine attempts at communication, some with English speakers and some tailored to Japanese speakers.  This post represents an attempt at describing those types of Engrish and separating the noise from what real signal exists.

What follows is a 3-way classification scheme for Engrish.  If you don’t know what Engrish is, welcome to the Internet!

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Foreign? Western? White? Non-Japanese? Occidental proboscis monsters?

There are 3 terms in English that people use interchangeably for the Japanese word 外国人 gaikokujin (a very loaded term for non-Japanese people) here in Japan. None of them are perfect translations since they reflect the communicative needs of different societies, which I believe is a consideration that should affect any translated text. The words are:

  1. Foreigner,
  2. Westerner,
  3. Non-Japanese (NJ), and sometimes just
  4. Gaikokujin or gaijin

I’ve already talked a bit about gaikokujin and gaijin and how using them means adopting some of the least admirable parts of Japanese culture.  Even the 3 English terms though have some problems with definition and usage, and at least one ought to be tossed like savage in the junk heap of formerly acceptable words for types of humans.  The 3 words highlight a few issues I think people should take into account when choosing a translation, particularly for a concept like “people not from this country”, so clearly context-dependent.

It’s-a me, the historical basis for Mario!

Continue reading “Foreign? Western? White? Non-Japanese? Occidental proboscis monsters?”

International marriage in Japan – a correlation broken in South America

I went hunting backward through citations after reading in this book that while international marriages in Japan are predominantly between Japanese men and non-Japanese women, the opposite is true when one partner is “Western”.  Specifically, the book claims that 89% of international marriages in Japan where one partner is “Western” are between a Western male and Japanese female.

Statistically an unlikely pairing, unless that guy is Japanese and the girl is Chinese.

Basically, the author misread her source, but the truth isn’t much different.  The Japanese government statistics cited in the article that she cites say that 89% of marriages between Americans and Japanese have an American husband and Japanese wife.  That’s a fairly minor nitpick, since most people’s readings of the statistics (given below) would come up with a similar number with other countries included in “the West”.  However, I have a bigger nitpick with that article (citing the government figures, cited by the book), which is that it also needlessly dichotomizes gender roles for international marriages into a “Western model” and “Japanese model”, where the wife working part time is considered a “mixed Japanese/Western model”.  Never mind that mothers working part time is an extremely normal phenomenon in Japan – the author frames it as a departure from Japan’s traditional working culture, buying into the conservative myth of the nuclear family.  Part of the blame also lies with the nebulous and outdated term “Western” (hence my excessive scare quotes), which seems to be a way for writers to avoid saying “white”.  Post on that issue forthcoming.  Here I will just say that it rears its UV-sensitive head again as half of a useless Occidental-Oriental dichotomy that people should have stopped using during the Cold War.

By the way, both the article and especially the book are still worth reading.  The book in particular has a ridiculously thorough section on the history of English in Japan, which one wouldn’t necessarily expect in a book nominally on gender and identity.

But none of that is the main point of this post.  What follows is.

Continue reading “International marriage in Japan – a correlation broken in South America”

Book Review: 英語はインド式で学べ! (Learn English the Indian Way!)

I was enjoying a fine meal at a vegan café when the conversation between us and the owners turned to English learning.  Now, this happens pretty often when you’re an English teacher (or just look like one) as people are reminded by your presence that they nominally took at least 6 years of English at school and have little to show for it.  In this case though, the owners of the café were as international a couple as you can have when both members are Japanese, and I didn’t get the sense that they were looking for our help in fueling a navel-gazing session on why Japanese can’t learn English.  Still, one half of the couple was in search of learning materials and brought out this book she had bought, wondering what we would think.


The top and middle say more or less what the subtitles indicate. Bottom, large type: “This solves all of the Japanese people’s English weak points!” Yellow type in black stripe: “・After one hour, change into English that works! ・Because it’s ‘World Standard English’, it works all over the world!”

She seemed to realize that this wasn’t the best use of her money, and when I expressed surprise at the unusual angle the authors were taking for their already-suspicious volume, she said I could just take it.  I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a serious academic work, as it’s rarely a sign of quality when the title of a textbook contains exclamation points and the color scheme would, in the wild, indicate the presence of deadly venom.  Still, I was intrigued that a mass market book could so prominently feature the concept of “World Standard English”, as this author (Tadashi Yasuda, CEO of something called “Pan-nations Consulting Group”, and self-described “Leder of communication”) calls the concept better known as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), essentially a set of standards aimed at facilitating English communication between fellow non-native speakers (NNSs).

The style presaged by the cover is continued inside with still-greater intensity.


From the preface.  The section headers read: “This is a book exactly for you, who say ‘I want to speak English!'” and “The English learning methods [practiced] till now have not been suited to the Japanese!”.
On one page I counted 18 exclamation points to 5 periods.  To be fair, this doesn’t reflect exclamation points at the ends of  18 sentences, as some sentences ended with multiple exclamation points – another bellweather of staid and steady insights to come.  The author is also fond of the dots above letters that indicate emphasis in Japanese, at some points using these above every letter in a sentence. The style in general seems to be of a BBS user from an era before emojis barely containing his impatience while explaining a conspiracy theory.

The review

I was wondering how best to organize this review, and after browsing the contents I came to the conclusion that because the book is written for a mass audience and therefore includes reference to a variety of widely-held beliefs and tropes on language and language learning, I would separate my points of criticsm into clichés and non-clichés.  This way I can explore the familiar cultural ground on which this book positions itself before seeing what, if anything, is novel about it besides the angle it uses to catch book-buyers’ (and my) attention.

Why am I reviewing this?!

I should also say before launching into more in-depth content that I know nobody in the respectable ELT world is asking for reviews of the types of language learning books that seem to occupy the same social space as gluten-free brownie recipes and chicken soup-based collections of inspirational stories (the publisher seems to specialize in this genre).  However, I think it is important for people whose ideas of language learning involve lots of words like “emergent”, “lemma” and “socio-culturally situated” to remember that most language learners know none of those concepts or really anything about SLA and are flying blind when it comes to choosing materials.  As such, they are likely to choose books or methods that seem compatible with preconceived or ambient notions of language learning and are purchased for reasons related more to marketing than to rigor or a history of success.  For the same reason I devoted a lot of my time in Japan post-MA to studying eikaiwa, the things that most people actually use to study as opposed to what we think they ought to use deserve the attention of researchers as well.  To quote myself, if you want to study nutrition you have to know what people are actually eating.

Read on!

Continue reading “Book Review: 英語はインド式で学べ! (Learn English the Indian Way!)”