A few weeks ago something strange started happening with my hearing. Particularly when I had been sleeping on my right side, when I woke up in the morning my right ear would be blocked – as if I had been swimming and it was still filled with water, or as if I was on a plane after take off and it hadn’t ‘popped’ (my ear, that is, not the plane). This normally cleared up after a couple of hours, but depending on which side of the blackboard I stood, large parts of the morning’s English lessons were passing me by.
At first I put the problem down to hay fever, which always plays havoc with my sinuses and was still going strong even at the beginning of July (I had been under the impression that grass pollen is practically non-existent in Japan, but no such luck – another foreigner working in Ibaraki recently posted on Facebook about how his grass pollen hay fever has been almost untreatably bad). It soon got to the point where the offending ear would remain blocked until after lunch, and then to the point where it was still the same when I went to bed. After two or three days of listening to the world in mono, and having to either lean in towards people to hear what they were saying or turn around so that my left ear was facing them, I realised that it was time to go to the doctor.
At the height of the cedar pollen season in the spring, Mrs M’s uncle recommended a jibika
(耳鼻科 / ear, nose and throat specialist) who had been a contemporary of his when they were at school, and whose surgery is just up the road from our new apartment. As is the case whenever one falls ill in Japan, I didn’t have to be referred to S-sensei by a GP, nor did I have to make an appointment to see him: his clinic is open until 6.30 on weekdays, and in the four or five times I have been there, it has never taken more than a twenty-minute wait before I am ushered into his office and asked to sit down.
Rather than an ordinary chair, however, as the patient, one is directed to a kind of high-backed examination seat equipped with various attachments, head- and arm-rests, and which reminds me of a Frankenstein-style electric chair whenever I sit in it. S-sensei himself is a chubby fellow in a white coat and spectacles, and while a normal doctor (well, the kind of doctor I’m used to seeing on ER
, anyway) will have a stethoscope draped around their neck, S-sensei has a CD-shaped mirror strapped to his forehead at all times. He is more nutty professor than friendly doctor, has a habit of licking his bottom lip when he speaks, and when he does speak, it is faster than possibly any other Japanese person I have ever met.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ he asked the first time I met him.
‘My hay fever is really bad and I’ve run out of medicine,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried the over-the-counter stuff but it doesn’t work, so I was wondering if you could prescribe something stronger – I was taking cetirizine hydrochloride back in the UK’
‘Actually that's quite weak. Hay fever drugs are classified in three levels, and cetirizine is a level three.’
‘Really? That’s all I’ve ever been offered. I didn’t realise there was anything stronger.’
‘Obviously the stronger medicines may make you drowsy, so we’ll monitor your condition through the season and give you a prescription based on that. If you take a look at this chart, you’ll see that the pollen in Ibaraki is particularly bad – the worst in the country, in fact – and next year it’s going to be even worse. Do you take any other kinds of medicine?’
‘I use a nasal spray sometimes.’
‘You need to be careful not to become too dependent on nasal sprays. Can you read Japanese?’
‘So long as it’s not too technical, yes.’
‘Have a look at this – or your wife can read it for you.’
He handed me a photocopy of an article from a medical journal about the perils of steroid-based nasal sprays, and carried on talking for several more minutes. The more he spoke, the faster his voice became, and rather than interrupt his flow, I asked Mrs M to go over the salient points as we drove home.
When we went to see S-sensei last week, he peered into my right ear using one of those instruments with a little conical whatsit on the end containing a magnifying glass and a light.
‘It’s just full of earwax,’ he declared. ‘Let’s check the other one. Yes, that’s almost as bad.’ He called Mrs M over to see for herself. ‘See? Completely blocked. There may be another problem, but until we get these cleaned out I won’t be able to tell.’
A couple of years ago I had an attack of tinnitus, which I eventually decided had been caused by my rather over-zealous use of cotton buds. I have been trying to wean myself off them ever since, to the point where for the past few months, I have only been cleaning my ears once a week. As a result, instead of having tinnitus I was now partially deaf, so S-sensei prescribed some ear drops and asked me to come back in three days’ time, when he would clear the blockage.
‘Do you mind me asking how you’ll do that?’ I said. ‘It’s just that a couple of friends of mine suffered hearing damage after having their ears syringed.’ I wasn’t sure how to translate this into Japanese, so described the kind of syringe you would use to receive an injection or give a blood sample.
‘Don’t worry,’ said S-sensei. ‘We don’t do any alternative therapies here. A few years ago there was a treatment going round that involved putting a lit candle in your ear. It was ridiculous, and I was the one having to clear up the mess.’
Three times a day for the next three days, Mrs M put three magic ear drops into each ear and left me lying on my side for three minutes at a time, and by the third day – as S-sensei had warned me – the gunk had softened up and then re-congealed to make me deaf in the left ear too. Monday was my first day working at the board of education since the beginning of April, but I could do little more than sit at my desk and ignore everybody. If someone spoke very clearly and I listened very carefully then I could just about hold a conversation, but it was like spending all day stuck at the bottom of a swimming pool, and I left early in order to get to the clinic before it closed.
The first time I thought the nurse had called my name it turned out to be somebody else’s, and when she did call my name I didn’t hear it at all, but before long I was back in the Frankenstein Chair and S-sensei was sticking a long, thin metal tube into my ear. This worked a little like one of those small-scale computer keyboard vacuum cleaners that you used to be able to buy from the Innovations
catalogue, and Mrs M and I also found out what that mysterious CD-like mirror was for: S-sensei positioned it over his eye so that it reflected light into my ear, and looked through the hole in the middle.
‘Try not to move,’ he said. ‘This may hurt a little.’ And indeed it did, although the pain was nowhere near as disconcerting as the noise, which was a combination of hoover-like suction and what sounded like extreme radio interference: crackling, squealing and the occasional firework-like explosion.
‘You see that?’ said S-sensei, holding up a chunk of earwax that rather than the usual orange-y colour was a kind of dark, reddish brown. ‘That’s what happens when you don’t clean your ears properly.’
Once the ordeal was over, he told me that I should use a cotton bud every day and come to the clinic once a month for the mini-vacuum cleaner treatment. Despite his assertions to the contrary, however, I realised that the procedure I had just undergone was to all intents and purposes the same as having one’s ears syringed, and not an experience I had any intention of repeating.
Still, the original problem had certainly gone away, to the extent that my hearing was now almost too good: every shuffling footstep, every humming machine, every tinkling metallic medical instrument, every chattering voice in the clinic sounded inordinately loud, as if someone had turned up the volume on my internal amplifier. The sensation reminded me of a story from Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, in which a patient’s sense of smell becomes hyper-sensitive after a drug overdose, and popping into the supermarket on the way home was like being immersed in the kind of interactive sound sculpture installation you sometimes find at the Tate Modern. It seems likely that my ears had been at least partially blocked for some time, and that instead of this over-sensitivity being due to the shock of regaining my hearing, I was simply experiencing the world as it really sounds; whether or not this will help me keep up with S-sensei’s high-speed Japanese, though, is another matter.
For the past twenty years or so, the city in which I work has been running an exchange programme with its twin town (or 'sister city', as they prefer to say here) in the States, so for much of last week I had the chance to act as interpreter, when a group of ten students and two teachers came for a whirlwind tour of Ibaraki.
Not that they were short of interpreters: at the first-night welcome party there were four of us, most of the Japanese speeches had already been translated into English, and the Americans - K-sensei and her student, er, K-san - did an admirable job of reading out the phonetic Japanese versions of theirs, leaving me with more time to relax and eat pizza (the organisers of the exchange had decided not to inflict anything too culinarily outlandish on their guests when they had only just arrived in the country).
The following day T-kun - who back home in the States is in even more sports clubs than his Japanese counterparts: basketball, athletics and American football - was guest of honour at the school where I am currently working, and we immediately put him to work in some first-grade (seventh grade if you count the American way) English classes. After a few minutes of conferring, each of the students asked him a question - Do you like Japanese food? How tall are you? Do you have a girlfriend? etc - although even with everyone speaking English, I still needed to do some interpreting, this time from beginner's English into British English, and from American English back into beginner's English.
In the afternoon the exchange students were treated to a bunka-taiken (文化体験 / cultural experience), and first up was origami, for which they didn't just learn how to make the usual birds and planes, but also a so-called kami-teppoh (紙鉄砲 / paper gun), an ingenious triangular contraption that you hold at one corner and snap open with a whipping motion to produce an impressively loud banging noise (so impressive that the boys never tired of creeping up on people and firing it off directly behind them).
Next was shodoh (書道 / calligraphy), for which they wrote the character for friend (友) over and over, until it was legible enough to be committed to posterity on a square of gold-edged card. T-kun is left-handed, and I asked the sensei if this might present him with any difficulties.
'To be honest,' she said, 'left-handed children used to be made to write with their right hand instead. These days you can use pens and pencils, so it isn't so much of a problem, but kanji were originally conceived to be written right-handed, with a brush.' (Possibly for the same reasons, Mrs M's father, who was born left-handed, taught himself to be right-handed when he was still at school.)
Last of all we donned kimono and hakama (袴 / essentially a man's kimono) for chadoh (茶道 / the tea ceremony). This was my fourth or fifth encounter with chadoh, and while I don't pretend to know anything more than the absolute basics, I did at last find out about the whole bowl-turning thing: the chawan (茶碗 / tea bowl) has a decorative front and a plainer reverse, and the server presents the more appealing decorative side to the customer (the drinker?). The customer then rotates the chawan clockwise through 180 degrees, so that the decorative side is facing away from him or her. He or she then drinks from the plain side of the chawan - thereby keeping the decorative side pristine - before rotating it anti-clockwise though 180 degrees to its original position and handing it back to the server.
'All we need now is some kertarner,' said the boys as they struck samurai-style poses for the camera after the ceremony. 'Don't they have any kertarner we can use?'
'What's a kertarner?' I asked them.
'You know, a samurai sword!'
'Oh, you mean a katana!'
'Is there anywhere we can buy one?'
It was at this point that K-sensei intervened to try and persuade them that maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to try and smuggle samurai swords onto the return flight.
After another day at school, on the Friday we took a trip to the Aquaworld aquarium in Oh-arai Town, where as the first customers of the day we were granted a glimpse behind the scenes. Our guide wore a Britney mic
and carried a portable loudspeaker, but even with the volume turned up, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the many pumps and water treatment gizmos above the fish tanks (whose perspex walls, incidentally, are a reassuringly sturdy 55cm thick), which made the experience rather less educational than it might have been.
After watching the dolphin show we headed for the food court, where I sat down to have lunch with a couple of the Japanese boys.
'So, do you want an American girlfriend?' I asked them.
'Yes!' came the enthusiastic reply, and I assume the Americans would have returned the compliment: after several days in each other's company, the students finally seemed to be getting over the double-whammy of a language barrier and teenage shyness, and had more fun skimming stones and paddling in the Pacific after lunch than the penguins did at feeding time.
In the afternoon we went to a shopping cen...sorry, I mean 'outlet mall', which on a dull weekday was almost completely devoid of customers. Still, some of the girls managed to spot a slightly scary looking transvestite (is there any other kind of transvestite than a slightly scary looking one, I wonder?), and the boys - egged on by me, it has to be said - dared each other to go into the Triumph lingerie shop, ask one of the assistants for help, and hold up a bra-and-panties set in front of the mirror as if they wanted to try it on.
After a very long flight, several days of looking after a group of rowdy kids and several evenings spent with a teetotal host family, the other American teacher, S-sensei, was in dire need of beer, so we booked a table at a nearby izakaya for a child-free evening meal. By about 10pm, S-sensei was finishing off his sixth dai-jokki (大ジョッキ / large glass of beer), and insisted on ordering 'One more!' before calling it a night - much to the surprise of his hosts, he was still able to walk and talk as we made our way out to the car park.
The following evening, Mrs M and I were invited to a barbecue by T-kun's host family, and when we arrived, the boys were having a BB gun shooting contest. T-kun managed to knock down a row of three bottles and cans in twelve seconds (it was the kind of gun you have to reload between each 'bullet'), and just as I was remarking how only an American could handle a gun so expertly, one of the Japanese boys achieved the same feat in just seven seconds.
After dinner we grabbed some torches and headed for a nearby valley, where along a gravel track at the edge of the rice fields, a few points of greenish light were flitting back and forth in the long grass. These were hotaru (蛍 / fireflies), which for a first-timer like me were an enchanting sight, and which even Mrs M confessed to not having seen for the best part of twenty years (in a nice example of linguistic logic, the kanji for hotaru forms part of the Japanese word keikoh - 蛍光 - meaning 'fluorescence').
After a farewell party on the Sunday evening, the exchange students and their teachers began the long journey back to America, although not before expressing their continuing amazement at the fact that I don't have a middle name ('You don't have a middle name?' 'No.' 'Why not?' 'My parents didn't give me one.' 'But you have to have a middle name!' 'What's your middle name, then?' 'I'm not telling you!' etc). As well as allowing me some time away from teaching English, it had been nice to be able to see the country through the eyes of those who are experiencing it for the first time, and reminded me of how I felt on the occasion of my first visit nearly a decade ago, when - as S-sensei described it - Japan seemed like 'a magical place'.
I hereby wish to announce my retirement from studying Japanese. Or perhaps 'semi-retirement' would be a better way of putting it: what I want to semi-retire from is the student-y part of studying, so from now on there will be no more weekday evenings at the Adult Learning Centre, no more Saturday mornings at the Centre For International Communication, and no more poring over endless photocopies of convoluted explanations of the incredibly subtle difference between equally obscure grammatical constructions.
My excu...er, I mean reason for quitting is that on 1st July I sat - for the second and possibly final time - Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (aka nihongo noh-ryoku shiken / 日本語能力試験), and with any luck, this time I'll get the 100 points out of 180 required for a pass (last December I managed a close-but-no-cigar 98). As you might expect, Level 1 is mind-bogglingly difficult, although passing it - particularly passing it by the skin of one's teeth, which is what I'm aiming for - can in no way, shape or form be regarded as evidence that one is fluent in Japanese.
You can, for instance, get full marks in Level 1 of the JLPT without so much as being able to say 'konichiwa', as there is no spoken element to the exam. It helps a lot if you can understand what someone is talking about when they say 'konichiwa' to you, but if you live in Japan and have a reasonable grasp of the language, the listening section is comparatively easy (and by 'comparatively easy', I mean, 'infinitesimally less fiendishly tough than the reading section').
When I sat Level 1 in December 2011, I can honestly say that there wasn't a single occasion as I was doing the latter when I thought to myself, 'Aha! That's definitely the right answer!' For about a third of the time I thought, 'Well, that's probably the right answer, but I'm not 100% sure,' for about another third of the time I thought, 'Well, that's not obviously the wrong answer, and I'm not even 50% sure,' and for the rest of the time I simply crossed my fingers, picked a number between one and four and hoped for the best.
This time round, I was pleased to discover that my reading speed had improved, so that I was left with five minutes at the end of the test to hastily reassess some of the more utterly baffling questions. The trouble is that 'reading' and 'understanding' are two entirely different things, and I'm not sure that I had improved at all in the latter.
The comprehension question that had me completely stumped last year was a page-and-a-half-long essay about (I think) the relationship between philosophy and science, and my strategy then was to look at my answer sheet, find the number I had plumped for the fewest number of times - two, if memory serves me correctly - and answer all four questions about the passage with a two. This time round there was an essay about a Japanese writer and his attitude to the concepts of fantasy and imagination, which would have been impenetrable enough if it wasn't for the fact that these were expressed as 'fantasy-fantasy' and 'imagination-imagination', so that instead of, say, 'So-and-so uses the concept of fantasy to deal with the indirect expression of ideas, whereas he uses the concept of imagination to deal with the direct expression of ideas,' the essay went something like, 'So-and-so uses the concept of fantasy-fantasy to deal with the indirect expression of ideas, whereas he uses the concept of imagination-imagination to deal with the direct expression of ideas.' Pardon the net-ism, but WTF?!
While I wasn't at quite so much of a loss for some of the other comprehension questions, time and again I was only able to narrow down the possible number of correct answers to two: even if you essentially 'get' what's being discussed in the relevant passage of Japanese, you will often be confronted with a choice of answers along the lines of:
1) In this passage, the writer is saying that he agrees with the policy of protecting as many species of whale as possible
2) In this passage, the writer is saying that he disagrees with the policy of not protecting any species of whale at all.
3) In this passage, the writer is saying that he disagrees with the policy of protecting as many species of whale as possible.
4) In this passage, the writer is saying that he agrees with the policy of not protecting any species of whale at all.
Obviously that's not a direct quote, but you get the idea.
The exam rooms themselves - in the romantically named Building 3B and Building 3C at Tsukuba University - were large-ish lecture theatres, and while it was possible to go in and sit down half an hour before the official start time, I have learned from experience that it is best to loiter outside until the last possible moment, as this enables you to go for as many last-minute pees as you want (I managed three) and to engage in panicked small-talk with your fellow examinees.
Even once you have entered the lecture theatre, there is still an interminable wait before you are finally allowed to pick up your retractable pencil and open the exam paper. The invigilators - who wore yellow arm bands, and as far as I could tell were students earning some extra cash - first read out the rules and regulations (no food or drink in the exam room, switch off your mobile phones, put your bag on the floor, items permitted to be placed on desk: pencils - HB or B - spare pencil leads, erasers, wristwatch), then went around the room making sure the photographs on our application forms matched our faces. They also explained the two-strikes-and-you're-out, yellow card / red card warning system, although the JLPT is not the kind of exam that changes lives or launches careers, so I can't imagine this is put into practice very often.
With so much to read and so little time in which to read it (two hours and five minutes, to be precise), the sheer levels of concentration required to sit Level 1 would be enough to turn the most laid-back of Japanophiles into something more reminiscent of that bloke from the David Cronenberg film Scanners whose head literally explodes in mid-press conference, and to be honest, there's not much you can do to counteract this. My main relaxation strategy was to take off my shoes in the manner of a long-haul air passenger, and while no one in the surrounding seats complained about my smelly socks, none of them followed suit, either.
After the reading section there was a forty-minute break, during which everyone rushed outside and gulped down as much caffeine as their bodies would tolerate, and when we re-entered the lecture theatre, I was interested to note that several people - their brains no doubt completely frazzled by the onslaught of obscure vocabulary and literary grammar - had given up and gone home. Partly because thousands of others are sitting the same exam at various locations around the world - on the same day but in different time zones - you are not allowed to take the exam paper home with you, so I have spent the past few days trying to recall what the questions were and where exactly I went wrong; I will have to wait another two months before the result arrives in the post, and to find out if - like, er, David Beckham at the 2006 World Cup - my retirement has been premature.