Many of us have had reason to complain about our job at some point or another, but the next time you feel like handing in your resignation and storming out of the office in a huff, spare a thought for the subject of this recent news story:
Death by overwork: only three days off in thirteen months - charges filed against presidents of confectionery company
The supervisory office for labour standards in Mito City and the Mito City public prosecutor's office have filed charges against the 69-year-old male director and 54-year-old female president of Japanese confectionery manufacturing company Hagiwara, which is based in Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture.
The suspects are being prosecuted for contravening a labour and management agreement by granting one of their male employees - a resident of Kasama City - just three days off in the thirteen-month period between 1st August 2010 and 31st August 2011, and for making him work on his days off a total of fifty-three times during the same period. They also failed to notify the labour standards office of the contents of the employee's contract.
According to the labour standards office, the member of staff, who was working as 'general director of manufacturing' and in control of shipping at the company, collapsed after arriving home on August 30th last year and died two days later. He was thirty years old and died as a result of ventricular fibrillation, although in February of this year, his death was officially recognised as being due to overwork.
It was recorded on the man's time card that he did more than one hundred hours' overtime per month for every month of the thirteen-month period, although the company could not confirm this, and said, 'the employee in question was taking breaks'.
Citing the man's status within the company, the suspects are refuting the allegations, saying that 'sections of the rules regarding labour standards law are not applicable to such a supervisory position'. The labour standards office, however, ruled that 'the employee was responsible for shipping, and as such, his role did not constitute a management position'.
(Various sources, including the Mainichi Newspaper, 1st October 2012. Oh, and in case you hadn't already cottoned on, karoh-shi / 過労死 is the Japanese word for 'death by overwork'.)
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'.
The one thing I forgot to mention when I was reminiscing about my previous job
was the commute, which was often the highlight of my working day. Even though my employers were paying me travel expenses based on covering the 14km round-trip by car, I only did so about ten times in the whole year - usually because I had to take my suit either to or from work, although on one rainy day when Mrs M had to use the car, I wore the suit beneath my waterproofs without causing any obvious damage. The rest of the time I commuted by bicycle: for the first few weeks on onii-san's lightweight semi-racer, and thereafter on the trusty Rock Spring. One fine morning I made it to school on the former in under twenty minutes, while on the latter it took more like twenty-five - sometimes thirty on the way back, as this included a long uphill stretch.
I spent rather more time than was necessary examining Yahoo Japan Map
and experimenting with short cuts that turned out to be nothing of the sort, before eventually settling on a route that took me first of all across a four-lane bypass. After this I veered into a narrow side street and past a wood yard, a ramen restaurant and an estate of dilapidated old bungalows (the Japanese equivalent of a trailer park), before the road dropped down into a valley of rice fields. From the brow of the hill, on a clear day you could see all the way to a mountain range on the border between Tochigi and Fukushima Prefectures, sixty kilometres to the north-west, and the pavement in the valley was constructed from large concrete blocks, which during the earthquake had been shaken out of alignment to form an obstacle course of slopes and steps. On the opposite side of the valley was a posh country club, where well-heeled businessmen would go for a quick nine holes or a session on the driving range before work, and beyond that a suburb of sorts, with two pachinko parlours - one abandoned and one still in business - two concrete works, two convenience stores, a beauty salon and a barber shop. There was also a run-down looking hostess bar with an old neon sign, an amateurish, hand-painted portrait of a supposedly glamorous hostess, and five A4 sheets of paper permanently pasted to the wall that read ten-in boshuh-chu
(店員募集中 / staff wanted).
Perhaps once or twice a week, a people carrier would pass by with one of its rear windows rolled down. Come rain or shine, a child of about four or five years old - presumably being driven to kindergarten by its mother - would lean out of the window and shout 'HELLOOOOOO!!!' although I rarely reacted quickly enough to say anything in reply.
In the morning, that long uphill stretch was a relaxing freewheel through a large industrial estate, in whose central car park truck drivers would be emerging from their cabins after a night's sleep, and various tradesmen and travelling salesmen would be chatting with their colleagues or sipping on vending machine coffee.
At the bottom of the hill the road ahead was blocked by a landslide that had yet to be cleared even a year after the earthquake. Here I turned right along with the rest of the traffic and into a short tunnel, at the other end of which was a wide river valley.
On some mornings the surrounding hills were shrouded in mist, on others the sunlight sparkled on the river, and on still others the wind whipped up the valley and I was sprayed with standing water by passing cars. In the morning a pair of tombi (鳶 / black kites) would eye me suspiciously as I passed beneath their perch atop a streetlight, and in the afternoon scores of them would circle high above the river, their tails twisting back and forth as they changed direction in the updraft. Slender white shirasagi (白鷺 / heron) stood at the water's edge while their human counterparts ventured out on long wooden boats: in the winter they fished for ayu (鮎 / sweetfish), and for a few weeks in the autumn for the salmon that swim upstream to spawn (the bodies of those salmon that failed to survive the journey lay on the riverbed for weeks afterwards).
The river marks the border between the so-called city where I lived (it's more like a town) and the so-called town where I worked (it's more like a village), and on the other side was a mushroom farm that gave off a stench like a cross between raw sewage and rotting flesh, a Yakult shop with its fleet of three-wheeled delivery scooters, a tiny police station, and an even smaller shrine on the pavement beneath a garden wall. Such shrines are erected by bereaved relatives after a road death, and this one was made from a couple of breeze blocks, a jizoh (地蔵 / small stone statue in a red cap and jacket), some opened cans and bottles of drink to keep the departed spirit from going thirsty, and two vases that were regularly replenished with fresh flowers.
I could tell if I was on time by whether or not the school bus was parked outside the local kindergarten (it left at 8.20 on the dot), and on the last narrow street between the main road and the school, one angry dog would strain at its rope as it tried to scale the garden fence and attack me, and one placid dog would gaze benevolently from its blanket-lined basket a few doors down.
For several months over the winter I wore a waterproof jacket, woolly hat, fleece and long trousers, while in the summer months, even at 8am the temperature was in the twenties. As well as cycling home in the snow, one afternoon last September I did so in a typhoon: admittedly, the storm didn't reach its peak until a few hours later, but I still had trouble staying upright, and the next day the river was twice as deep and twice as wide as usual.
(A geeky aside: while you might expect a bicycle to be cleaner after it has been ridden it in the rain, in fact the opposite is true, and the Rock Spring was always at its grubbiest after bad weather, its white frame splattered with mud and its chain clogged with oily gunk.)
Every day on the way home I would pass the same group of elementary school children with their yellow hats and red satchels. Although I was speeding past on the opposite side of the road, over the course of the year we managed to turn this into a kind of mini-English conversation class, so:
First kid in the group - 'HELLO!'
Me - 'HELLO!'
Fifth kid in the group - 'HOW ARE YOU?'
Me - 'I'M FINE THANK YOU, AND YOU?'
Tenth kid in the group - 'I'M FINE THANK YOU!'
And so on and so forth.
At least for the next couple of months my journey to work will only take five minutes, and I won't see any tombi, or shirasagi, or salmon (although I do pass a different and even angrier dog), and apart from anything else I've already put on weight from the lack of exercise.
Ever fancied a change of career? I thought that I was being fairly radical by packing in my job as a sound recordist and moving to Japan to teach English, but a recent edition of the TV show Waratté Coraété (笑ってコラえて / Try Not To Laugh) featured the story of a sound recordist whose life underwent an entirely different - and frankly much more impressive - transformation.
Hiroshi Kikuda usd to work for NHK, and as well as the usual TV fare, specialised in recording classical music. During time off from a job in Vienna in 1996, Kikuda bought a second-hand violin from an antiques market, and having taken it back to Tokyo, decided to try his hand at making one himself. He joined an evening class, and over the next four years made ten violins, eventually plucking up the courage to show one of them to an expert.
'This is very nice,' said the expert. 'But it's not a violin.'
'Rather than being halfway to my destination,' explained Kikuda, 'I realised that I had only just set out on the journey.'
Not long after, Kikuda came across a violin made by Nicola Lazzari.
'This was what I had been aiming for all along,' he said. 'And if I was ever going to make a real violin, I realised there was no choice but to learn from the man himself.'
Lazzari's workshop is one of over 130 in Cremona, Italy, the city where Stradivari - the most famous violin maker of all - plied his trade in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and home to Lazzari's alma mater, the Cremona International Violin Making School.
Kikuda talked to his wife Hisako about going to study at the school, and far from telling him to pull himself together and stop being so stupid, she said that if he really wanted to become a violin maker then he had better do it properly.
'If someone finds what they really want to do,' said Hisako, 'that's an amazing thing.'
'She didn't so much push me into going to Italy,' continued Kikuda, 'as physically throw me.'
Kikuda spent the following year studying Italian, although by the time his interview came around he was far from fluent, and ended up repeating the same phrase over and over again: 'I want to study at this school!'
His application was successful, and Kikuda and Hisako moved to Italy, where as well as twelve hours a week of violin making, Kikuda had to study the standard high school curriculum of maths, history, English and so on, in a class where most of the other students were aound half his age. Three years later, in 2004, Kikuda didn't just graduate, he scored 100% in both the practical and academic facets of the course.
While he was still studying, Kikuda had begun to visit Lazzari's workshop, and once the course was over, asked Lazzari to assess his latest effort.
'It's nice,' said Lazzari. 'But it's not a violin.'
Still, Lazzari was sufficiently impressed with Kikuda's ability to take him on as an apprentice, and Kikuda spent the next two years watching Lazzari intently, making copious notes and continuing to hone his craft.
At the end of the apprenticeship, Kikuda showed Lazzari yet another violin.
'It looks beautiful,' said Lazzari. 'But it sounds awful.'
'I had become too focussed on the appearance of the violin and lost sight of how it was supposed to sound,' said Kikuda, and perhaps spurred on by the thought that failing to make a go of it in Cremona would mean a return to sound recording (which you can take it from me is a terrifying prospect), Kikuda persevered.
In 2005 he entered one of his voilins in an international competition in the Czech Republic, where among other things, it was assessed based on how it fared when accompanied in performance by a full orchestra. Out of a total of forty entries, Kikuda's violin finished in fourth place, and like Lazzari, the judges at the competition praised it for its appearance rather than its sound. But at both the 2006 Wieniawski competition in Poland and the 2007 Tchaikovsky competition in Russia - two of the three most prestigious competitions in the field - his violins won the grand prize, and this year he aims to complete what would be an unprecedented grand slam by winning the third, which just happens to take place in Cremona.
When Kikuda - who as you might expect is a modest and softly spoken kind of fellow - was interviewed with Hisako for Waratté Koraété, they reflected on how coming across that second-hand violin in Vienna had been a life-changing moment, and how Kikuda had named his first gold-medal-winning violin 'Elfo' (that's Italian for elf, in case you weren't sure): at the time, his wife was obsessed with the Orlando Bloom character from The Lord Of The Rings, and the couple now have a poster of Bloom on the wall of their apartment. 'The first poster I've ever bought!' confessed Hisako.
To round off his appearance on the show, Kikuda was interviewed via a satellite link-up to Italy, and listened as the vioinist Mariko Senju played the same piece of music by Bach, firstly on an original Stradivarius, and then on one of Kikuda's violins. As it happened, Kikuda had worked with Senju back in 1999 when he was still a sound man, and confessed that at the time he hadn't had the confidence to ask her to play one of his violins. He said that if he could be granted one wish, it would be to hear what his voilins will sound like in two hundred years' time, when they will have grown up, so to speak (several times in the programme he referred to the violins as being like his children), and indeed, the Strad really did sound richer and deeper than Kikuda's violin, which was described by the show's presenters as sounding younger and fresher.
Among other things, the programme included a brief sequence about the violin making process itself (the thin black lines around its edge, for example - known as purfling - are not painted on but inserted as incredibly fine pieces of marquetry, and help prevent the main body from cracking if the instrument is dropped) and a sequence in a Tokyo music shop where Kikuda's violins are on sale (not that most people would be able to afford one: while a factory made violin can be purchased for as little as £100, a Kikuda will set you back the best part of £10,000). The one thing that wasn't mentioned was whether or not Kikuda himself has learned to play the violin, but then again, I assume he's too busy making them for that.
Kikuda's blog can be found here
, and the homepage for his workshop in Cremona can be found here
(both in Japanese).
I had intended to work at the friendly, rural junior high school and friendly, rural elementary school for another couple of years, but just before Christmas a friend of mine made me a job offer I couldn't refuse, and as of this month I shall be working at not one but five friendly, rural junior high schools in the next town (and to Mrs M's delight, earning an extra few thousand yen into the bargain). So before I forget what it was all like - and if it's OK with you - I'm just going to pop on my rose-tinted spectacles and go for a quick jaunt down memory lane.
As you may remember from my posts about baseball
, I spent the first fortnight of the summer holidays having a go at the various club activities on offer at the school. Possibly because most such sports were originally imported (while some schools have kendo or judo clubs, that wasn't the case here), the chants and calls employed by the students as they played were almost exclusively in English - or rather, a brand of English specially adapted for use by Japanese teenagers.
When I was with the tennis club we shouted 'Naishoh!' ('Nice shot!') when a point was won, 'Naisu catchee!' (a sarcastic 'Nice catch!') when the ball went out of play, and 'Faitoh!' ('Fight!') for any exhortation to try harder. With the basketball club
it was 'Naishuu!' ('Nice shooting!') when a point was won and 'Domai!' ('Don't mind!') when the ball went out of play. And with the volleyball club it was 'Chaa!' when there was a 'Chance!' to win a point and, er, 'Spaiku!' for a spike (ie. what you or I would call a smash).
Aside from stretching, squat jumps, press-ups and so on, we would start the day with at least ten laps of the school grounds, to be completed within a certain time limit and accompanied by a chant of the club members' own devising. The volleyball girls would maintain a continuous call-and-response of '[name of junior high school], hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hoooh!' and the tennis girls would chant '[name of junior high school], faitoh, ho, ho, hoooh!'
Before the basketball girls started jogging, we stood one at a time on a kind of podium next to the playing field for koédasu
(声出す), which entailed each of us in turn shouting the name of the club, our own name and our aim for the day - eg. 'I WILL PRACTICE HARD AND SUPPORT MY FELLOW CLUB MEMBERS!' - at the tops of our voices.M-sensei was in charge of the table tennis club, and on the day that I joined in fully lived up to his reputation as the angriest teacher at the school. Each member of the club keeps a
notebook in which they write about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and reflect on how their practice and tournament matches went, and M-sensei berated the students for their lack of application in fulfilling this task for the best part of three quarters of an hour. In fact, he spent most of the morning in a barely concealed state of frustration and anger, and the entire time we were in the sports hall, I only saw him smile once.Then again, the table tennis club is the most successful at the school, and its members regularly progress from regional to prefectural tournaments
(despite having the tidiest pitch, the soccer team hasn't made it beyond the first stage of a tournament in more than five years), so this climate of fear seems to do the trick.More significantly, such a regime really does appear to instill confidence in the students. My playing partner for the morning was T-kun, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and hardly utters a word during the normal course of school life, but who patiently took me through the basics of the game in simple Japanese
, and who appeared to be taking it very easy indeed as we knocked the ball back and forth - once or twice I even noticed him suppress a smile after I had played a particularly poor shot.
Club activities were a lot less formal at the elementary school, although H-sensei, the 5th year homeroom teacher, did a very good job of knocking the brass band into shape. At the beginning of last April, most of its members had never even picked up an instrument, but for sports day in September they performed a selection of pop songs, film theme tunes and the school song, all while marching in formation.
As it turned out, H-sensei was classically trained, and explained to me that she only became a teacher after much soul-searching over whether or not to try her hand at being a professional musician instead. She also re-wrote a Japanese folk tale in easy English for her homeroom class to perform at the end-of-year culture festival, where along with demonstrations of their acting, writing, arithmetic, skipping and unicycling skills, almost all of the students did some kind of musical performance.
While only one student fainted from the heat and only one was injured seriously enough to be taken to hospital during the junior high sports festival, its culture festival only went ahead with the aid of large numbers of surgical masks and large amounts of prescription cold medicine. But where the elementary students tend to be slightly off key in an endearing kind of way when they're singing or playing, the junior high students sounded like full-blown professionals for the inter-class chorus contest. Formation dance routines copied from the latest pop videos received the biggest applause, but the highlight of the day for me was a swinging, jazzy waltz performed by five members of the brass band - I'm a sucker for underdogs, and the quintet's tuba player was the fat kid with chronic eczema..
The students I most enjoyed teaching English to were the tokubetsushién (特別支援 / special needs, which after studiously consulting his dictionary at the beginning of the year, my fellow teacher K-sensei insisted on calling 'the handicapped class'). Because there were only four of them, there was more time to get to know their personalities than in the usual classes of twenty or thirty-plus, and in any case, they were an inherently memorable - if rather motley - group.
Like the aforementioned tuba player, A-san was overweight and suffered from eczema, not to mention permanently greasy hair and a uniform that only saw the inside of a washing machine about once a month. But despite such obvious drawbacks, she had a pretty good grasp of English and the kind of sunny personality that could brighten up the greyest of days, and while a certain amount of what she said was impenetrable - she would sometimes rock back and forth in her chair and talk to herself - we would often share a joke with each other as she waited for the other members of the class to finish writing. K-san was the quietest of the four, and another A-san the most awkward (sometimes she would sit through an entire lesson grumpily staring out of the window and refusing to answer any questions, even from K-sensei), but the star of the show was I-kun.
For roughly fifty per cent of the time, I-kun had a cold, a stomach ache or some other indefinable illness, and when he wasn't excusing himself to go to the loo, he would be blowing his nose on the roll of toilet paper that was always close at hand, and throwing the remnants into a tatty old cardboard box he used as a wastepaper basket. For the remaining fifty per cent of the time, though, I-kun was unstoppable, and instead of studying English in the conventional manner, treated our lessons as a kind of free-form word association game. Whenever he managed to come up with a correct answer - which was mostly, it has to be said, by pure chance - he would exclaim, Ah! Yappari, oré wa tensai da! (あっ！やっぱり、俺は天才だ！/ 'Ah! Just as I thought, I'm a genius!'), and while most of his gags will be meaningless to a non-Japanese speaker - in fact, most of his gags will be meaningless even to a native Japanese speaker - I made a note of some of the ones that made me laugh:
For the days of the week: 'Monday, Tuesday, Queuesday...'
Or: 'Saturday, Sunday, nandé?' (nandé means 'why?')
When counting: 'thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-Doraémon...' (Doraémon is a famous cartoon character)
Or: 'thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-san...' (san is Japanese for the number three)
And in the same vein: 'ten, twenty, santy, forty...'
Instead of 'I leave home at seven forty', 'I leave home at seven horse'
Instead of 'Her husband Koji teaches Japanese', 'Her brass band Koji teaches Japanese'
Instead of 'Miss Green', 'Miss Glico' (Glico is a famous confectionery company)
K-sensei - 'What's the past tense of "have"?' I-kun – 'Ham and egg!'
And instead of 'I like tea', 'I like unchi' (unchi means 'poo')
Rather than sharing a single table, the special needs students preferred to spread their desks around the classroom, and I-kun was always furthest from the blackboard. Even when copying word-for-word, his spelling was atrocious, and at first I put this down to his learning disabilities. Eventually, however, I came to the realisation that he was merely short sighted.
'Do you wear contact lenses?' I asked him.
'Yes, yes. I wear contact lenses,' he replied.
'Does I-kun wear contact lenses?' I asked M-sensei later that day (as well as the table tennis club, M-sensei oversaw the special needs students).
'No, he doesn't,' said M-sensei. 'His mother won't let him.'
The following lesson, I-kun was sitting in his usual position at the back of the classroom, and instead of a dialogue from the textbook about school timetables, he wrote this:
I have FOR GENERAL WRITING
They are ADHESIVE STICK
How PLASTIC ERASER MADE IN JAPAN
In other words, he gave up trying to write what was on the board and instead copied whatever English he could find on the items in his pencil case.
Despite his hard-man image, M-sensei was the most visibly emotional of the teachers during the graduation ceremony at the end of March (he had taught I-kun at elementary as well as junior high school), for which the kocho-sensei made a typically rambling speech about a spacecraft that was lost for several years on its way back from collecting samples in a far-flung corner of the solar system, and a musician who became successful despite going blind after a childhood illness.
Apart from the graduation ceremony, beginning of term ceremonies, end of term ceremonies, clubs, lessons and exams, there were plenty of other events to keep the students occupied. These included sankenkai (散見会 / open day), ohsohji (大掃除 / spring cleaning) and sohkohkai (壮行会 / a rousing send-off to the summer sports tournament, for which a group of students in bandanas and white gloves chanted and gesticulated along to the rhythm of a big bass drum, and which looked and sounded like something from a Kurosawa samurai film). There was work experience week, school council elections, a drill for evacuating in the event of a disaster, and a drill for evacuating in the event of a suspicious intruder. A visiting high school headmaster made a speech about 'What it means to become an adult' (which despite the title had nothing to do with sex education), and one day we were all shown a video about bullying, which coincidentally was one of the most post-modern experiences of my entire life (I was in a school sports hall with some junior high school students, watching a video in which some junior high school students are in a school sports hall watching a performance of a play by some junior high school students that depicts the true story of how one of their classmates was bullied, and is performed on a stage set that recreates one of the classrooms at the school. As well as flashbacks to the bullying and to how the bullying was then turned into a play, at the climax of both the play and the video, the girl who has been bullied, who is playing the role of herself in the play, breaks out of character and delivers an emotional speech to the audience - or rather the audiences, if you include those of us watching the video - as herself. Confused? Unless you happen to be Noam Chomsky, I should hope so).
When writing about the junior high school in particular, I have tried to emphasise how friendly and relaxed it was, but despite his apparently laid-back attitude, the kocho-sensei ran a very tight ship, where even the slightest transgression from school rules was deemed unacceptable - normally the student in question would be surrounded by a posse of teachers, given a very stern talking to and leave the staff room in tears. The school was such a nice place to work precisely because the students hardly ever caused trouble, behaved badly during lessons or vandalised school property, and precisely because they always said hello when they passed you in the corridor, and always addressed those students in the years above them as 'so-and-so senpai' (先輩 / senior) rather than just by their names.
At a rehearsal for the graduation ceremony, the students' conduct was monitored down to the minutest detail, including how to stand up and sit down, how to bow while both standing up and sitting down, and even how to walk out of the hall at the end of the ceremony - a reminder of which was displayed behind the scenes on the day, and reads as follows:
- Sitting bow
- Hands when bowing - don't let them hang
- Girls' hands - don't open them, don't curl them up into a ball (cat hands)
- How to walk when you leave - don't let your mind wander
- How to replace your graduation certificate (when you are sitting down)
On one of my last days at the school, a former student dropped by to let us know the results of his university entrance exams, and while he was chatting with the other teachers, I went outside to load some things into my car. His girlfriend - who told me that she too was a former student - was loitering at the front door.
'You can go into the staff room and say hello if you want,' I said.
'I'm not allowed.'
'Having your hair dyed is against the rules.'
Her hair had reddish-brown highlights, and even though she had long since graduated from the school, its regime still applied. I wonder if I'll still be under the same spell in three years' time?
Most schools in Japan have a small radio studio, the main purpose of which is to facilitate the lunchtime broadcast. For this, two or three students talk about the day's menu - for example, at one point last week we were treated to an explanation of both the history and nutritional value of the cocoa bean - and pass on information about school activities. At my elementary school, the results of a daily competition are announced, based on the number of students from each class who have forgotten to bring their water flask, their handkerchief or their toothbrush, or whose toothbrush bristles are overly worn. Just like a proper radio station, the students are sometimes given the opportunity to make music requests, although at junior high school, we are treated to the same selection of rather mournful chamber pieces - chosen, I suspect, by the soon-to-retire music teacher - every day.Normally everyone stops chatting and at least pretends to pay attention to the lunchtime broadcast, but as I was sitting down to eat with 2:1 class
the other day, one of the students turned down the volume on the PA system and put on a CD instead. Th
e song - Ikimonogakari's Arigato (ありがとう / Thank You) is probably my favourite J-pop tune, and I was soon humming away to myself, much to the amusement of the students at my table.'Who chose this?' I asked one of them.'Er, I don't know,' he said.'Was there a class vote?''
I can't remember. Hey,' he said to the girl sitting opposite, '
why are we playing this CD?''Dunno,' she replied.So much for the change of routine, but anyway
, what better (and more flimsy) excuse to pull a few pop facts from Ikimonogakari's Wikipedia page, and to share the video with you:http://vimeo.com/14257739
(When I say 'the video', what I really mean is 'the video uploaded to Vimeo without permission and augmented with Spanish subtitles', and there is a very real possibility that by the time you read this it will have been taken down for legal reasons, thus defeating the object of this blog post altogether. If so, you should be able to find a similarly illicit version with a quick Google search).Ikimonogakari
means 'person in charge of living things', and was coined because rather than presenting the lunchtime broadcast, the two original band members - Yoshiki Mizuno and Hotaka Yamashita - were responsible for feeding the goldfish at their elementary school. Along the way, Mizuno and Yamashita acquired a lead singer - Kiyoé Yoshioka - and began to hone their skills at small scale live venues and as buskers in the western suburbs of Tokyo. Their independently released debut CD had the charmingly self-effacing title of While It's Sincerely Presumptuous Of Us To Say So, We Have Made Our First Album (Makoto Ni Sen-etsu Nagara Faasuto Arubamu Wo Koshiraemashita... / 誠に僭越ながらファーストアルバムを拵えました…
), and they soon gained a reputation as specialists in the art of commercial, TV and movie tie-ins. Since the early noughties, their songs have been used by Coca Cola, Nintendo, Asahi, several mobile phone companies, and in a score of TV dramas, animé and feature films (their latest release - Itsudatte Bokura Wa / いつだって僕らは - is in this TV ad
for correspondence courses).
While Ikimonogakari were respectably successful by 2010, Arigato was the song that turned them into one of the most popular bands in the country - so popular, in fact, that their songs Sakura
and Yell are now used as jingles to announce approaching trains at Ebina and Hon-Atsugi Stations (outside which they often used to busk) on the Odawara Line. Arigato was the opening theme for a soap opera called Gé-Gé-Gé No Nyoboh / ゲゲゲの女房 (part of an ongoing NHK series I have mentioned here before - Renzoku Terebi Shosetsu / 連続テレビ小説 - whose location and story changes twice a year), but while the commercial exploits of the band have no doubt made all three of its members very wealthy indeed, don't let that put you off their music, as they have a knack for coming up with emotionally stirring chord changes, and some of their best songs are structurally original too - for example, like The Beatles' She Loves You, Arigato starts with the chorus instead of the verse.
In case you don't understand Spanish, there follows my somewhat inexpert translation of the lyrics, which was hampered by the fact that in Japanese, it is the exception rather than the norm for a sentence to have a subject, and exactly who is doing or saying what with or to whom is very much open to interpretation.
I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But you held my hand more kindly than anyone else
Listen, listen to this voice
On a bright morning I give a wry smile as you open the window
And tell me that the future has just begun
Let's go out on the town again, like we always do
As always, the ups and downs of life accumulate
The two of us, our days together are fleeting
Carefully gather the escaping light, it's precious
And it's shining now
When did your dream
Become the dream of both of us
But today, one day, a cherished memory
Will clear the skies, whether they are blue or whether they are crying
I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But the hand that you held prompted a clear thought
That I am clumsily telling you
Forever, only forever
Because I want to laugh with you
To make sure of this road that I believed in
Now let's walk on, slowly
Days when we argued, days when we embraced
Let me search for every colour
A pure heart on which the future is written
Is still being added to
Who you live for
Whose love you receive
More than sharing happiness or sadness
Little by little, gather up the moments
If I find happiness with you
The thoughts we share
Even the little things
Let's embrace the light
Listen, nestle close to that voice
I want to tell you that I love you
I want to tell you because
That irreplaceable hand
Being together with you from now on
I believe in these things
I'm saying the words 'thank you' now
Holding my hand, more kindly than anyone else
So listen, listen to this voice
Incidentally, when Ikimonogakari were on TV over the Christmas holidays, onii-san described the lead singer as looking kibishii / 厳しい. The literal translation of kibishii is 'strict', although he was basically implying that she would be lucky to find a boyfriend. Onii-san is notoriously fussy when it comes to women, and I'm not sure that he was being entirely fair, but what do you think? Kiyoé Yoshioka: hottie or nottie?
The kocho-sensei at my junior high school was originally a science teacher, and under his guidance, the four special needs students do more gardening and botany-based activities than anything on their official timetable. A few weeks before Christmas I joined them in the school allotment to help harvest the soba (蕎麦 / buckwheat) crop, which was then left to dry in the sun. A few days later the soba seeds, which are wrapped in shiny black husks, were separated out and spread out on a tarpaulin on the classroom floor, and come the spring term the laborious process of transforming them into soba flour will begin.
The next step – known as soba-uchi - is to make noodles from the flour, but with barely enough seeds to produce a single portion of noodles, kocho-sensei went to a nearby farm shop to buy a job lot of flour (which incidentally is expensive stuff: a kilo will set you back more than 1000 yen / £5). With the students still on their winter vacation, he then invited the staff from two nearby elementary schools to join us for a kind of soba-uchi group bonding day.
When I arrived in the morning, kocho-sensei already had a towel tied around his head, something that seems to be a pre-requisite for any activity that might be considered bloke-y. A towel is the headgear of choice for most builders and carpenters, for example, not to mention anyone firing up a barbecue, mowing the lawn or taking part in those festivals where groups of men march through the streets carrying extremely heavy replica shrines. S-sensei - who is my point of contact at the elementary school where I teach once a week - turned up similarly attired, and turned out to be something of a soba-uchi expert.
‘What ratio are you using?’ he asked kocho-sensei.
’Go-wari,’ replied kocho-sensei (go-wari means 50%, and while you can buy juu-wari - 100% - soba at some restaurants, those in the know say that if you mix in a certain amount of wheat flour, it makes the noodles easier to make and tastier to eat).
‘Go-wari?’ said S-sensei. ‘That’s not soba at all, it’s udon!’
‘I’m just trying it out to see what will happen.’
‘Well, it’ll certainly make the dough easy to work with. Not sure what they’ll taste like, though. How much are you making?’
‘500 grams of soba flour and 500 grams of udon flour, so that makes a kilo.’
‘A kilo? That’s way too much!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to divide it in half before I roll it out.’
We were soon joined by kyoto-sensei (教頭先生 / the deputy headteacher) and both the kocho and kyoto senseis from S-sensei's elementary school, and for the first half hour or so I hovered in the background while they got a production line up and running. S-sensei had finished a pristine batch of noodles within about fifteen minutes, and I was surprised to see kocho-sensei struggling somewhat with his, despite being in possession of a brand new soba-kiri hoh-choh (蕎麦切り包丁 / soba knife - these are similar to a meat cleaver but more rectangular, with the handle in the middle as opposed to at one end).
‘Nice knife,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘How much did that set you back?’
‘It was supposed to be 25,000 yen, but it was the last one in the shop, so I managed to haggle him down to 15,000.’
‘I’ve got to go to the staff room and meet someone from the board of education,' said kocho-sensei after completing his own batch of noodles, 'so it’s your turn now. Do you fancy having a go at foon-zuké (踏ん付け)?’
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
‘You put the dough in a plastic bag on the floor and knead it with your feet.’
‘I don’t think we’ve got time for that,’ said S-sensei.
‘True. Well, I’ve measured out a nana-wari (70%) mix, so have a go at that.’
Once you've measured out the flour and sieved it into a wide, shallow lacquerware bowl, you gradually pour in one part water to two parts flour and work this in with your fingertips (in this case we were using 250ml of water to 500g of flour, which appears to be the standard amount, and produces enough noodles for about five portions). The mixture gave off a tremendous earthy aroma, and while at first it resemled breadcrumbs or the topping of a fruit crumble, once all the water had been added it soon congealed into a lump of dough about the size of a grapefruit.
The uchi part of soba-uchi means ‘hit’, and I assume refers to the next stage of the process. While you don't leave the dough to rise as you would for bread or pizza, it still needs to be softened up, which means repeatedly turning it over and squashing it with the heel of your hand: kocho-sensei said that about four hundred ‘hits’ is about right, which takes about ten minutes and requires a fair amount of elbow grease. (The owner of a restaurant in Hokkaido once demonstrated the process to me, and after years of making soba by hand, his forearms resembled Popeye’s in their post-spinach state.)
Contrary to S-sensei, kocho-sensei preferred to add warm water to the flour instead of cold, which made the resulting dough comparatively easy to work with, and I was soon ready for the next step. Again using the heel of your hand, you roughly flatten out the dough on a large chopping board – about 75cm square – and roll it out using a long, thin rolling pin called a menboh (麺棒). Getting the dough down to the correct thickness is easy enough; the tricky part is rolling it into a square instead of a circle.
Elementary kocho-sensei was the expert at this, and explained that once your dough has reached about half the size you want to end up with, you wrap it around the menboh, roll both across the board six times – gently so as not to flatten the dough too quickly – turn the menboh through ninety degrees, unroll the dough, wrap it around the menboh again – this time from the next ‘corner’ of the square – and repeat the process. At least in theory, this should stretch the four corners of the dough and leave you with a square that is slightly smaller than the chopping board.
Using the menboh to lift up one edge of the dough, you then fold it in half, fold it again lengthways, and once more end-to-end, leaving you with an eight-layered rectangle approximately thirty centimetres long by fifteen centimetres wide. The important thing at this stage is to to sprinkle some uchiko (打ち粉 / spare soba flour) over the dough before each fold – something that I neglected to do on my first attempt, and which resulted in my noodles sticking together in the way that spaghetti can if you forget to stir it as it’s cooking.
Now it was time for the fun part, namely getting my hands on that hefty soba knife. As a rule, Japanese chefs wield their kitchen knives slightly differently from us Europeans, so that rather than using the point of the knife on the chopping board as a pivot and lowering the blade in an arc towards the body, here you hold the knife above and parallel to the chopping board, and keep it level as you cut downwards and slightly away from the body.
To cut noodles, you also need something called a koma-ita (小間板), which is a kind of wooden paddle with a handle on top and one straight edge. Being careful not to exert too much pressure, you place the koma-ita at one end of the dough with a millimetre or two of dough exposed. Using the straight edge as a guide, after each downward cut you keep the blade on the chopping board and lean the soba knife slightly to the left, nudging the koma-ita ever so slightly in the same direction, and leaving it in just the right position to guide you for your next cut.
‘You cut fifteen times for each portion,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘Then you slide the noodles to the edge of the board and pick them up gently with your right hand. Tap them on the board like this’ – lowering one end of the handful of noodles onto the board not only got rid of any excess flour, but also separated any noodles that hadn’t been cleanly cut – ‘then hold the other end in your left hand and do the same thing again. Give them a bit of a twist before you lay them out,’ he said. ‘Makes them look more appetising, doesn’t it?’
At the other end of the kitchen, the tea lady, the school nurse and the home economics teacher had been cooking away for most of the morning, and just outside, the elementary kyoto-sensei was simmering the noodles for a few minutes at a time over a gas burner in a huge cooking pot. They were then rinsed in cold water and arranged on large, flat, basket-like trays before being carried into the next room, where tables had been laid for the forty or so teachers, who by midday had begun to arrive for lunch.
A posse of them soon crowded round to check on my progress, and having concentrated so hard on trying to produce the perfect soba, I was exhausted by the time I completed the final cut.
‘Full marks! Very good!’ said elementary kocho-sensei, and while my noodles weren’t as uniformly slender as S-sensei’s (who did, I was interested to see, have at least one mini-crisis, when a batch of dough became irreparably creased as he was rolling it out and almost forced him to start again from scratch), they didn’t look quite as flat, wide and tagliatelle-like as some of the others that were on show.
As well as being comparatively low in calories, the completed noodles have an attractive, speckled appearance - the tiny black dots are leftover fragments of husk - and today we had a choice of hot miso-based soup with pork and vegetables (kenchin soba) and cold, soy sauce-based soup with wasabi and spring onions (zaru soba) in which to immerse them. One of the teachers at my table told us about a restaurant in Mito where you can order soba sushi, soba dumplings and even soba ice cream, but for the moment at least, I think I'll stick to good, old-fashioned noodles.
It was pouring with rain until about 10 o’clock last Thursday morning, so instead of doing three and a half hours of soccer club, I did an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, though, I sweated off at least a couple of kilos, pulled a muscle in my leg, felt like I was about to have a heart attack, did a spot of gardening and didn’t kick a single football.
We started off, as the soccer club does almost every day, with what I was assured were ten laps of the pitch, but which felt like several more, alternating between a sprint along the sidelines and a jog along the goal lines. I pulled my left quad within seconds of setting off because, oddly, we hadn’t done any stretching beforehand: the students had been stuck indoors studying since 8.30, so perhaps they were eager to get going, and just to make things that little bit more challenging, we all carried a half-litre bottle of water in each hand. By about the third or fourth lap, I was seriously considering giving up, as quite apart from the veritable waterfall of sweat cascading from my brow, I had begun to get a tight feeling in my chest. As the sun poked through the clouds for the first time that morning, I also wondered whether I might be in the early stages of heatstroke.
When I was going through a jogging phase a few years ago, I read that interval training – ie. alternating between jogging and sprinting – is one of the best ways to increase your stamina over long distances. Sadly I was far too lazy to try interval training for myself, and having finally experienced it first hand, my advice to any budding jogger would be to start off with a very small amount of sprinting and build up from there, rather than going straight in with a half-and-half mix of the two.
After a ten-minute drinks break I thought we might get to play some football, but no such luck. (‘When it’s raining heavily,’ explained H-kun, who is the team captain, ‘we do stuff like this. If you play soccer in the rain people end up catching cold.’) The next exercise involved jogging round the pitch in a line as before – still carrying water bottles in our hands – with the last person in the line sprinting to the front and shouting ‘Hai!’ (‘Yes!’), then the new last person doing the same, and so on and so forth. With about fifteen or twenty people in the line, this meant that I was only sprinting for about ten seconds every couple of minutes, but the accumulated physical exertion was beginning to take its toll, and when Y-sensei looked up at the clock on the side of the school building and said, ‘Another seven minutes!’ I couldn’t face any more and stopped for another drinks break – or rather, keeled over at the side of the pitch and wheezed like a forty-a-day smoker for a few minutes, before gulping down another litre of water and waiting for the dizziness to stop.
I managed to re-join the line for the last couple of laps, but by the time we had completed those, even if we had been given the chance to start practicing our dribbling skills or free kick technique, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to join in, so was quite relieved when Y-sensei told us to jog down to the other end of the pitch and round off the training session with some kusa-tori.
As we squatted down, kama
in hand, and began pulling up weeds near the goal line, Y-sensei asked each student in turn what they thought the purpose of kusa-tori was, and gave marks out of a hundred depending on their replies.
‘Three or four years ago,’ said Y-sensei, ‘this pitch was covered in weeds. They were all over the penalty area, which got in the way of us playing properly. Since then we’ve been paying more attention to doing the weeding, and the soccer team has started winning.’
‘The team with the tidiest pitch,’ he continued, ‘is the team that wins.’
Making your school football team do the weeding may seem like a slightly ridiculous thing to do, but it made me think of another point that Malcolm Gladwell makes in The Tipping Point. His theory – based in part on studies of a reduction in New York crime rates in the early nineties – is that a person’s environment has just as big an influence on the likelihood of them committing a crime as their background or their personality. The people running the New York subway system turned around crime levels at least in part by cleaning up graffiti. They also clamped down on fare dodging, which because it was so prevalent and so visible, was influencing normally law-abiding citizens to join in.
On a recent episode of Honma Dekka?! (ホンマでっか？！/ Is That Really True?!) – a TV show that has a panel of academics and experts reveal a variety of interesting new trends, discoveries and inventions to a panel of celebrities – one of the experts cited a study which showed that around the time of large firework displays, just as levels of discarded rubbish increase, so do levels of petty crime. In other words, people’s behaviour degenerates in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the environment in which they find themselves. Surely it is no coincidence that Japanese children, who grow up cleaning their schools and weeding their playing fields, and whose parents and grandparents place such importance on keeping their homes spic and span (and their toilets in particular
), turn into adults who are less likely to commit crimes.
A lot of westerners criticise the Japanese education system for being too regimented – militaristic, even – and more like national service than school. While I am not necessarily in favour of national service, I am beginning to see the benefits of a system that keeps its students fit, healthy and active, gives them regular and multiple goals to work towards (not to mention properly commemorating the reaching of those goals with ceremonies, prizegivings and so on), and teaches them the benefits of using every spare moment to practice what they do until they master it, all without having to fire a gun or drive a tank.
Perhaps things have changed, but when I was a child, unless you happened to go to private school or have parents who could afford to pay for private tuition, the scope for taking part in extra-curricular activities was woefully small. Admittedly there was a teachers’ strike when I was at middle school, but even allowing for that, with the exception of rehearsals for the annual school play, I hardly ever stayed later than 4 o’clock, and certainly never went to school during the holidays. More to the point, I can’t imagine that any member of the current England football team has ever got down on his hands and knees and tended to a football pitch (do they even clean the senior players’ boots any more, as apprentices did in the old days?). If they had, perhaps they might be able to display a little more humility, and devote themselves a little more selflessly to their team.
Just because the summer holidays have already started doesn’t mean the students stop coming to school, so for the couple of weeks’ work I am obliged to do between now and the end of August, I have decided to join in with the various club activities that will be occupying them during their supposed time off.
First up was baseball, which is renowned for attracting pushy parents who complain if they don’t think their child is being coached to the best of his ability, and with that in mind, K-sensei has been swotting up. もし高校野球のマネージャーがドラッカーの「マネジメント」を読んだら (If A High School Baseball Manager Read Drucker's 'Management') is a recent best-selling book by Natsumi Iwasaki that describes – as you might expect from its rather dry title – what happens when a high school baseball coach decides to base her training regime on the management theories of Peter Drucker. The book has subsequently been made into a film, while Drucker’s original books – which not entirely coincidentally are published by the same company – have been selling pretty healthily too, and as well as If A High School etc., K-sensei has also read a kind of Drucker-For-Dummies-With-Manga tie-in.
K-sensei’s co-coach is N-sensei, although neither of them was anywhere to be seen when I arrived at 7.15 on Friday morning. They had been drinking until the early hours at a staff party the previous night (Mrs M wouldn’t loosen the purse strings enough to allow me to go), and K-sensei arrived at 7.30, although while he had remembered to bring a digital breathalyser with him, he had forgotten to bring the door keys to the main building. So we sat around and waited for N-sensei, who finally turned up with his own set of keys about fifteen minutes later.
By now the club members had already jogged a couple of laps of the school grounds, and while K-sensei typed up a training schedule in the staff room, I put on my PE kit and went outside to join them for some stretching. For this the team stood in a circle around their captain, who shouted, ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi!’ to their ‘Go, roku, shichi, hachi!’ as we did each exercise.
Already dressed in white uniforms and blue baseball caps, the students then changed into their spikes, which looked like old-fashioned, ankle-high, black leather football boots, with some kind of additional toe guard attached to the left shoe of each pair. As with old-style football boots, the spikes themselves were metallic, and looked as if they could cause some pretty serious damage if the wearer were to mis-time a slide into home base (surely professionals have progressed to something a little more hi-tech, I thought, possibly in moulded plastic?).
Our first practice drill involved stealing bases, with three players at a time either backtracking if the pitcher spotted their run, or carrying on to the next base if he threw a pitch as normal. After a couple of laps of the diamond taking one base at a time, everyone gathered around N-sensei, removed their caps and bowed with an ‘onégaishimass!’ (The literal meaning of お願いします is ‘I politely ask a favour’, but it can be used to mean ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘nice to meet you’ or any number of other things, and when uttered by baseball players, karate students and the like, comes out as more of a grunted ‘oss!’)
‘Why are your uniforms still clean?’ demanded N-sensei (with the ground still damp after last week’s typhoon, I had deliberately avoided sliding for fear of messing up my new tracksuit bottoms). ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to get their uniform dirty can quit now. You can wash it in the washing machine, can’t you? Look, this is what you should be doing.’ He dived to the ground face first and stood up with mud marks on his t-shirt and trousers.
‘Were you in the correct position?’ N-sensei continued, with no response from the students. ‘No. Should you be resting your hands on your knees like this?’
This time, one or two of them muttered a reluctant ‘no’.
‘No. If you do you can’t react quickly enough. You crouch down and use your hands to balance. Keep your weight on your right foot so you’re ready to start running, and go up on the balls of your feet like this. Two more laps, and do it properly this time.’
The very first student to step up to first base immediately rested his hands on his knees, and this wasn’t the only time during the morning that I thought to myself, Drucker or no Drucker, K-sensei will have his work cut out knocking this lot into shape. The team was eliminated from a recent inter-school tournament in the first round, and while most of the first-choice players have now quit the club to concentrate on studying for their high school entrance exams, it’s not a result that reflects particularly well on the first and second years they have left behind.
The student with his hands on his knees, incidentally, is quite an interesting character. Outwardly, he looks and acts like the school bully and / or the one most likely to end up in some kind of juvenile correctional facility, but despite apparently not paying any attention at all in class – at least when I’m teaching him, that is – his English is better than almost anyone else in the year. The macho posturing is, so I’m told, the result of living in a mother-less household – I assume his parents divorced and she moved out – where he isn’t given breakfast and makes do with cup ramen for dinner, but for the recent second year work experience week, he was allotted two days at the local police station, so there is some hope that he’ll stay on the right side of the law when he gets older.
One of the more studious second years is K-kun (kun / 君 is a suffix for addressing boys or male inferiors at work), who helped me with the next couple of drills, one of which was a gambit whereby the batsman takes the pace off the ball with the bat so that it drops at his feet. In doing this he will almost certainly sacrifice his chances of making it to first base, but since the opposition will be pre-occupied with a ball that has landed just too far from the catcher to enable a quick pick-up-and-throw, one of his team-mates should get the chance to steal a base at the same time.
‘If you block it this way,’ said K-kun, gesturing towards first base, ‘the guy coming in from third can make it home, but if you block it the other way, he’s going to get run out. Hold the bat like this. Keep your right hand soft and don’t twist it around – lift it up and down by bending your knees instead.’
The soccer club members were practicing at the other end of the playing field, and as we rotated positions in our group of three, Y-sensei – who vies with the table tennis teacher M-sensei for being the most intimidating in the school – started yelling at them.
‘Our last baseball coach,’ said K-kun, ‘was really scary. You see the kindergarten behind the school?’
‘Yes' – it was probably 150 metres from where we were standing.
‘Once, when he was angry, he threw a ball all the way into the playground.’
Somehow I couldn’t imagine K-sensei or N-sensei getting angry, but then again, perhaps they were toning things down a little today because I was there. When I looked over a couple of minutes later, the entire soccer club was down on its knees doing ten minutes of kusa-tori (草取り/ weeding – turf is very hard to maintain in the heat of a Japanese summer, so most school playing fields have a surface of compacted, dusty soil).
Away from the twenty-five or so students with whom I was practicing, one kid was on his own at the side of the field, apparently repairing the large net that stops balls from hitting passing cars or from flying into nearby fields, which may or may not have been a similar punishment to the soccer players’ kusa-tori. At the opposite end of the playing field, two more students were pushing car tyres back and forth along the ground.
‘Have they done something wrong?’ I asked K-sensei.
‘No,' he said. 'They’re pitchers. Pitchers are special. They use different parts of their bodies when they play, so we give them special exercises.’
Nearby, another two students were throwing a ball back and forth at impressively high speed.
‘Are they pitchers too?’
‘They must be second years, right?’
‘No, no,' said K-sensei. 'They’re first years.’
A group of professional baseball players came to Mrs M’s hometown for a training camp a few months ago, and seeing them pitch at close quarters was quite something. You could hear the ball make a kind of fizzing sound as it flew through the air, and even though they were standing just a foot or two away from the spectators, their pitches never strayed from a narrow area around the catcher’s gloves. K-sensei told me that professional pitchers can move the ball at 150kmh or more, and while these twelve year olds weren’t quite at that level yet, the ball still made a satisfyingly loud slap as it hit the gloves of whichever one was acting as catcher.
There is a solitary girl in the baseball club, who seemed to be holding her own pretty well. In fact, she was probably the most foul-mouthed person there, and spent a fair proportion of the practice session telling her team-mates they were idiots, or to stop taking the piss.
‘She’s a pitcher as well, isn’t she?’ I seemed to recall her telling me this during an English lesson recently.
‘She was a pitcher,’ said K-sensei.
‘But not any more?’
‘No, not any more.’
Each practice routine had a name, and while many of these were clearly derived from English, I couldn’t work out what most of them meant, and when things began to get more complicated – one of the drills involved the batsman appearing to fake one of the drop shots we were practicing earlier, only to adjust his grip and give the ball a proper hit – I stayed on the periphery and fed stray balls back to the pitcher. (One of the most interesting things about the session as a whole was that there was no match at the end of it: a major reason why the standard of football in Britain has dropped so low is because there is too much emphasis on playing matches at too young an age, and not enough on perfecting basic skills.)
A third teacher – H-sensei – joined us for a final half-hour of long-range catching practice, preceded by his paunch and shuffling over from the staff room with a too-small baseball cap balanced precariously on his head. ‘Did you learn baseball when you were younger?’ I asked him later. ‘No, I was in the judo club!’ he said, and while H-sensei didn’t look entirely at home, he did prove the point that, à la Babe Ruth, you don’t necessarily have to be slim or quick on your feet to be good at baseball, as he could thwack the ball high and long. Standing at the far end of the playing field, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t completely hopeless myself, although if your previous experience of catching practice happened on a cricket pitch, suddenly finding yourself wearing a huge baseball glove gives you a distinct mental advantage.
I caught probably five or six balls at various different angles and heights, and was just beginning to enjoy myself when K-sensei called an end to proceedings. There followed ten minutes of kusa-tori – teachers and students together, in this case – and raking the ruts out of the pitch, before we were called in for one final conflab. K-sensei told everyone they would be coming to school at 6.30am on Monday (they would also be coming in for practice on Saturday and Sunday), to catch a bus to the third stage of the tournament from which they had been eliminated a few weeks before.
‘Watch the teams practice,’ he said. ‘You’ll see that they look relaxed. They’re not killing themselves before a game because they already know what they can do. Look at them play. Today you guys were…well, you were hopeless. What do they do differently? What should you be doing better?’
I said a brief thank you to everyone for allowing me to take part, and returned to the staff room to eat my packed lunch, more than five hours after the practice session had begun. No wonder children in Japan are so well behaved, I thought, and no wonder there’s so little crime here. With pretty much everyone under the age of twenty spending this much time playing sport every week, all of that bottled-up teenage testosterone just vanishes. Five days later my body still hasn’t quite recovered from the exertion, but if only I had been given the chance to spend this much time playing football when I was younger, I might have become a half-decent player instead of an occasional five-a-sider, and I might not have spent the best part of my teenage years watching TV or staring out of the window waiting for something to happen.