Anyone for mushy peas?

Obviously I have been breaking into spontaneous renditions of God Save The Queen at least three times a day since the Olympics kicked off, and cheering on our rowers, runners, riders and, er, beach volleyball players to make the most of their home advantage and win a hatful of medals. But in amongst all the Brit-related hoo-ha on television of late, the most amusing – and accurate – story had nothing whatsoever to do with sport.

Sekai Banzuké (世界番付 / World Ranking) is part of a sub-genre of Japanese programming that for want of a better phrase, I shall categorise as ‘Foreigners do the craziest things!’ and in common with its predecessors, pits a panel of comedians and celebrities against a panel of foreigners (a colleague of mine told me that he once spotted an ALT he used to work with on a ‘Foreigners do the craziest things!’ programme hosted by Takeshi Kitano). Sekai Banzuké presents a series of rankings – each week’s episode is based around a theme such as romance, money or manners – as the basis for multi-cultural debate and mutual Mickey-taking, and occasionally conducts its own hidden camera ‘research’ in several different countries simultaneously. One such experiment involved a tearful child pretending to be lost in order to see how many people would stop to help her, another involved a glamorous woman sashaying down the street and recording how many times she was wolf-whistled or chatted up, and for another, an actor ‘accidentally’ dropped an armful of oranges to see if anyone would help him pick them up (the Japanese proved to be the most helpful in this particular experiment).

The panel of foreigners on Sekai Banzuké is known as the G20, and its members speak Japanese with varying degrees of proficiency. One or two of them can be seen glancing down at their notes as they tell an anecdote, and Mrs M practically swoons over the ones who are the most ryuu-choh (流暢 / fluent), but for the most part, they have become regulars on the programme because they possess a recognisable comic persona: Ian from the UK is curmudgeonly and sarcastic; Simone from Brazil is big and brash; Christine likes to demonstrate how even children’s songs from her native Switzerland sound like terrifying Nazi rallying cries; Richard is constantly apologising for how boring life in the Netherlands is; the South African Prisca is an intimidating combination of soul singer and man-eater; and Gregory from New Zealand is a greasy-haired back-packer type with only a passing interest in personal hygiene.

Recent rankings have included: which country has the biggest homes (America), which country is the most linguistically able (Malaysia – the average Malaysian speaks more than three languages, while the Japanese were bottom of the list with an average of just 1.2), which country’s women are the most desirable (Brazil), which country has the most wedding guests (India), which country drinks the most alcohol (Latvia), and so on and so forth. Some of the statistics on which the rankings are based are more reliable than others, but despite the programme being played mainly for laughs, it does manage to be at least moderately informative.

One of the rankings in last week’s episode was ‘Which country has the most inedible food?’ – not an easy statistic to quantify, but anyway, Russia came in third, America second, and in a way that can’t have been entirely coincidental on the day before the Olympic opening ceremony, the UK came first. Once Ian had reacted with his most withering look, the programme cut to a pre-recorded segment in which the half-British model-stroke-celeb Joy (real name Joseph Greenwood) was packed off to London to investigate.

Joy’s first stop was Piccadilly Circus, where he asked foreign tourists if they agreed with the allegation (they did) and native Brits if they disagreed – they did, and all pointed to fish and chips as an example of British cuisine at its finest. With this in mind, Joy resolved to sample this signature dish for himself. Rather than seeking out an authentic British chippy, however, he went to one of those touristy dives in central London where the décor is cheap and nasty and the menus are an over-priced hodge-podge of fast food staples, aimed at the kind of tourists who don’t know where to find a decent eatery, and at the kind of pre- and post-pub revellers who wouldn’t know a decent eatery if they were delivered direct to their table in a chauffeur-driven limousine.

The ‘chef’ at said restaurant deep-fried everything from frozen – and for far longer than was necessary – resulting in fish that appeared to have fossilised over the course of several centuries, and chips like a mound of mini-breeze blocks. When Joy asked the waitress if she didn’t think that perhaps the dish was a little on the bland side, her advice was to add vinegar (Mrs M and I were watching the programme at the in-laws’, and onii-san made the point that particularly in the UK, customers are encouraged to add their own seasoning using the condiments provided – a kind of ‘I’ve cooked the food, you add the flavour’ philosophy). The production team then bought take-away fish and chips from four equally dubious central London establishments and delivered them to Parliament Square for Joy to conduct a taste test: perhaps unsurprisingly, he described each one as being ‘uniquely disgusting’.

Next on Joy’s itinerary was a kind of ‘ranking within a ranking’, for which he was made to sample the three most stomach-churningly foul British dishes in existence. Number three was the deep-fried Mars Bar, number two was another Scottish concoction, the haggis (to be fair, on a visit to Scotland in my pre-vegetarian days, I thought haggis was rather nice), and number one was jellied eels, which induced on-screen retching from both Joy and his manager (as you might expect, the Japanese way of preparing eel – aka unagi / 鰻 – is infinitely more palatable).

In order to find out what the average British family eats at home, Joy then headed for the suburbs and began knocking on doors, asking a succession of wary-looking strangers if they wouldn’t mind cooking him dinner. He was finally invited in by a young mum called Becky, who, almost as if she had been chosen beforehand, proceeded to ‘cook’ a stereotypically unappetising meal of instant mashed potato, instant gravy, microwaved sweetcorn, a medley of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli boiled from frozen (‘Frozen vegetables are the freshest,’ declared Becky, much to the dismay of the celebs and presenters back in the Sekai Banzuké studio) and a piece of chicken grilled to the point where it looked as if it had been caught in the epicentre of a nuclear explosion. While Becky couldn’t understand what Joy was saying as he tucked in to the dinner she had cooked for him, something in her sensed that the verdict wasn’t favourable, and he only managed to avoid being kicked out of the house by breaking into a spontaneous impression of Dobby from the Harry Potter films.

Cut to Joy’s interview with a food ‘expert’, who explained that after the onset of the industrial revolution, the British had less time to spend on preparing food, and that since lower income families found it difficult to get hold of fresh ingredients, they tended to overcook things like meat and fish to make absolutely sure they didn’t come down with food poisoning.

In the interests of – ahem – balance, Joy’s final port of call was a posh gastro pub, where he was served a dish of rare venison, accompanied by vegetables that in all likelihood not been boiled from frozen.
‘This is good!’ he exclaimed, his face a mixture of surprise and delight, and with that, the programme cut back to the studio, where Ian was looking even more withering and curmudgeonly than before.

Obviously the makers of Sekai Banzuké had directed and edited the piece with the express intention of a) making British food look revolting and b) making the viewers laugh, but while I suspect you will find equally disgusting food elsewhere in the world, they did have a point. Particularly when I was growing up, Britain was a country where it was all too easy to find oneself eating undigestible stodge, although I’m not sure this has anything to do with the industrial revolution. Most of us simply don’t care enough about food to demand anything better, and while a British housewife (or house husband) will throw together a packed lunch of sandwiches, a chocolate bar, a bag of crisps and an apple in a matter of minutes, her Japanese counterpart will get up at five in the morning to cook bento boxes from scratch for her husband and children.

As the expert pointed out, British cuisine has improved no end in recent years, and we can now boast a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. Thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver – an episode of whose series Jamie’s Great Britain was recently broadcast on NHK – both cooking and eating are seen as a pleasure rather than a chore, and if nothing else, Sekai Banzuké would do well to invite a British celebrity to Japan and see how they get on with the likes of shio-kara (塩辛 / fermented squid guts), sazaé (栄螺 / a green and black coloured, bitter tasting shellfish), fu (麩 / cubes of wheat flour dough that are used as soggy croutons in soups), and of course natto (納豆 / sticky, stringy fermented soy beans that smell like old socks).

Elementary school / 小学校

My schedule at junior high school is fairly light, and even when I’m in a classroom, it’s merely as an assistant (I only just learnt the Japanese word for ALT, and no wonder, as it’s the rather ungainly gaikokugo-shidoh-joshu / 外国語指導助手). Every Wednesday, however, I work at a nearby elementary school, where despite my job title being the same, I effectively take on sole responsibility for planning and teaching four lessons during the course of the day.

By the time they start junior high school, children are already well on the way to becoming surly teenagers, who would rather stare at the floor in embarrassment than hold a conversation, and whose workload gets exponentially more arduous, what with after-school club activities most nights of the week and a lengthy list of exams to pass before they reach high school, where the list of exams will become even more lengthy. At elementary school, though, they still have that wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes teaching them a pleasure, even if keeping them under control can be rather hard on the vocal chords.

I get up slightly earlier than usual on a Wednesday morning, as I have to drop by the junior high school to change into my work clothes and collect my lesson plans. Having cycled five minutes down the road to the elementary school, I will then have first period to remind myself of exactly what it was I put in the lesson plans, and to say hello to the other teachers as they pop in and out of the staff room.

While office workers all over Japan will be coming to work in open-necked shirts this summer (an idea called ‘Cool Biz’, whose purpose is to save on air conditioning bills and thus combat electricity shortages), I have rarely seen the kocho-sensei at my elementary school wearing anything other than a tracksuit, and this relaxed dress code is partly because during morning break, everyone jogs around the playground to the accompaniment of a medley of pop songs. The last of these has an instrumental break at the end, which is everyone’s cue to start sprinting, and while I can appreciate the benefits of deliberately wearing out a bunch of over-excitable school kids, I can’t say that I’m particularly looking forward to Jogging Time – or indeed Sprinting Time – when the temperature starts creeping into the thirties.

Lunch break is a little less regimented, and I will often get roped in to play games with whichever kids grab me first. Football is played with a proper ball, large goals, on a large pitch, and with lots of little players running from one end to the other and back again (elementary students all have reversible red-or-white peaked caps, and the first time I joined in, I had to ask them to properly divide themselves into a red team and a white team, otherwise how was I going to know who was on my side?). Dodgeball is beloved of Japanese children, and the game I took part in a couple of weeks ago quickly degenerated into chaos, due to the fact that another group of children was trying to play basketball in the same place at the same time. I was once persuaded by some of the younger children to play oni-gokko (鬼ごっこ / the Japanese version of tag, or ‘it’ as we used to call it when I was younger), but have vowed never to do so again, as I became ‘it’ within a few seconds, and spent the rest of break time fruitlessly chasing down the other players, who were able to utilise a rule which says that even if you are caught, you will be safe so long as you have crossed your arms first.

Elsewhere in the playground, the children will be riding unicycles, spinning hula hoops and clambering around on the rather old and frankly treacherous looking climbing frames, which are a good three metres high: last week, one poor girl burst into tears at the top, and was still stuck there with a teacher trying to talk her down when the bell rang to signal the start of cleaning time.

Elementary students aren’t quite as thorough with their cleaning duties as their counterparts in junior high, but they are admirably dedicated to the task, and dutifully obey the class rota that dictates who cleans which part of the school and on what day. They also line up when they’re finished to bow to each other and say ‘gokuroh-sama-deshta’ (ご苦労様でした / ‘Good job!’). Just like at junior high school, they even serve their own lunch, which is delivered ready prepared and still warm from the town’s municipal catering company. Again, there is a rota for each class that lists who has to dress in surgical masks, elasticated bonnets and white coats and act as dinner ladies and dinner gents for the day.

One of the kocho-sensei’s right-hand men, S-sensei, is my main point of contact at the school, and as well being very patient with my rudimentary Japanese (relatively speaking, his English is significantly better), he always has my schedule mapped out well in advance, including which class I am to visit for lunch. There are only six possibilities, as due to the declining birth rate in Japan, many rural schools have been forced to close, class sizes are getting smaller, and where my junior high has two classes in each grade with up to thirty seven students in each, the elementary has just one class per grade of around twenty.

The great thing for me about working at elementary school is that the students are closer to my mental age as a Japanese speaker, and I am a lot more comfortable talking about zoo animals or Tokyo Disneyland than I am about politics, religion or radiation levels. Over lunch, your typical elementary student will ask me something like, ‘What’s your favourite mode of transport?’ or ‘Do you have any pets?’ and then, depending on my answer, will proceed to tell me all about how their dad owns a truck that he drives for the family cleaning business and he let them ride in the cab once, or how many dogs their family owns, how old they are and what breed they are. When I was introducing myself for my first lesson with each class, I had to answer many such questions – questions that for children of between six and twelve years old are of the utmost importance. ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ or ‘What’s your favourite food?’ are the standard, but you do get some pretty bizarre ones now and then. ‘What’s your favourite shape?’ for example, had me completely stumped, until one of the other students called out ‘heart!’ and saved me from having to say that I liked squares or triangles.

At the end of the day, everyone lines up in the playground wearing their other hat – either a yellow baseball cap or a yellow Richie Richardson-style cricket hat – and randoseru (school bag). The children will be grouped depending on where they live so that no one has to walk home on their own, and god forbid that anyone’s parents should come to pick them up in the car: just as the junior high school students all ride bicycles to school, so the elementary students all walk, even if it’s for a very long way indeed (one of them told me yesterday that it takes her fifty minutes to walk home, which makes for a round-trip of an hour and forty minutes every day).

As one of my colleagues at junior high said, many of the students had probably never seen a white man in their entire lives before they met me (their previous ALT was Chinese), and because I only teach at the elementary school once a week, the sheer novelty of my presence means they can barely contain their enthusiasm when they see me in the playground or when I pass them on my bicycle. Before I start to feel too much like a pop star or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, though, I am back at junior high by 4pm, where the students treat me a lot more like the mere mortal that I am.