Friday, 23 November 2012

Riding a PCX in Japan

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His name is Rothbart

I was recently granted permission to drive to work, after an argument that lasted for just over three years. I don’t actually have a car license, but my Australian scooter license was converted into a Japanese all-class scooter license. The all-class license is very difficult to get in Japan; the test apparently includes riding along a narrow plank suspended in the air and biking up a steep and uneven concrete slope. Having one made me an instant bad arse (however undeserved). I’d like to say that I’m using my powers for good, but it is incredibly satisfying when some guy is raving to me about his oh-so-cool bike and how tough his and I innocently say “oh, you have an under 400 license? Mine is all-class… but yours is cute too.” I’m a bad person. Anyway. What I actually ride is a 125 cc Honda PCX , so not especially cool, but damn it is a pleasure to ride. I don’t steer so much as think briefly about the direction I want to go in. It corners like something that corners so well you would use it as an analogy for a motorbike that corners well. And it is so, SO pretty. Despite being a scooter and not particularly large, the combination of styling and my armoured jacket/very cool helmet caused quite a sensation at all of my schools. Coming after my recent newspaper appearance for naginata, the bike has helped to perpetuate a healthy reputation for being strong and “wild” among my students. The only downside is that my insurance doesn’t cover me for “300 teen-aged boys sitting on the vehicle at lunch time and making voom-voom noises”, which at the moment seems like the biggest danger Rothbart faces.
125 cc is the perfect size for Japan. It is small enough that I don’t have to pay for the expensive road-worthiness test (shaken), and I can usually park in bicycle parking for free, but it is just big enough to be allowed on the express-way (I think... the sign says "no bikes under 125 which I assume means 125 is OK, but I haven't confirmed that). Given that the maximum speed limit on all the highways in my area is 50 kmph I really don’t need any more power than 125cc. Although Japanese drivers are generally very very bad drivers with no respect for road rules or fear of death, Japan is a great place to ride on two wheels. Lane-splitting (driving down the center between two lanes of traffic, for example while stopped at traffic lights) is common practice and not only expected but encouraged (it is illegal in Australia). Many traffic lights have these spaces marked out on the road that are exclusively for two wheeled vehicles that have moved up to the front of the line.
It makes complete sense to do this given how much more quickly bikes can take off when the lights change. Drivers are tolerant or bikers zipping in and out of traffic and seem very ready to allow me to slip in front of them when I rejoin traffic (presumably because they expect me to zoom off again shortly and not slow them down). This is so different from Australia, where many bike riders feel that everyone on four wheels is actively trying to kill us. I’ve heard stories about cars opening their doors to block bikes from overtaking them, riders forced off the road completely by cars aggressively moving into their lane space and my personal experience was that cars never yielded to me, even when I clearly had right of way. It is terrifying to ride here because of the incompetence of other road users, but not because I am on two wheels.
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Bird, a Bell and Me: Custody disputes are not a new issue

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私が両手をひろげても、Even if I spread open my arms
お空はちっとも飛べないが、I cannot soar into the sky at all,
飛べる小鳥は私のように、 but the little bird who can fly
地面を速く走れない。 cannot run fast along the ground like I can.
私が体をゆすっても、 Even if I shake my body
きれいな音はでないけど、 no beautiful sound will come out,
あの鳴る鈴は私のように、 but the ringing bell does not
たくさんな唄は知らないよ。 know lots of songs like I do.
鈴と、小鳥と、それから私、 The bell, the little bird and also me:
みんなちがって、みんないい。 We are all different; we are all good.
I apologise to my translator friends for the poetic license employed in my translation m(__)m

It remains normal in Japanese divorces for one parent to retain sole custody, leaving the other parent with no visitation rights. This is one of about a thousand and one social problems caused by the family register system. A child can only be listed in one family’s register, so only one parent can keep them.  Even in cases where shared custody is awarded, there are no penalties for the primary custodian (the one with the child in their register) if s/he refuses the other parent access. A friend of mine has not seen his children since his ex-wife began demanding cash payments in return for allowing him to see them. These problems are becoming more widespread as the divorce rate increases, but they aren’t new. Kaneko Misuzu, the author of the poem above and a popular children’s writer, committed suicide in 1930. Her husband had contracted a venereal disease from frequenting brothels, so she divorced him. He responded by claiming sole custody of their daughter. Kaneko was twenty-seven when she ended her life.
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Vanishing Schools

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I love that even in this tiny classroom the teacher has two desks!
It seems quite common for elementary school ALTs to work in at least one school with only half a dozen students or fewer. A friend of mine teaches at a school with one student. No matter the number of enrolled students, each school will still have a principal, vice-principal, home room teacher, school nurse and lunch cook. The school holds a sports day every year, just like other schools, even though the one student has no other students to compete against (the local villagers join in so that he can at least participate in a relay race). When he graduates there will be a full ceremony and a graduation album. This school is close to my home as the crow flies, but is high in the mountain on one side of a steep valley. You drive past a wooden shack selling fresh wild boar meat on the way there. Unlike some schools that were built for a large student body but now have only a few students, this school was built with the expectation of low enrolments. This classroom only has two desks, but it doesn’t feel sad and empty like a 40-student classroom would with two desks. Even the science labs are miniature.
Another school has existed in the same place for more than a hundred years (the building is slightly newer than that), but the pattern of living has shifted over the years and there are no longer many children living around here. There are three buildings making up the school, but we could comfortable fit into just one wing these days. The empty rooms are used for all sorts of things. We have one room fitting with couches and a little stove with a whistling kettle on it that teachers can relax in and admire the gorgeous views. Two rooms are a museum displaying artefacts donated by the local community. There are some really interesting things there.

Before electronic word-processing it was very difficult to "type" ideographic languages. This ungainly beast is at attempt at a kanji type writer.

We even have enough space to house our own version of “Beach Animal” by Theo Jansen.
The googly eyes really make it...
There are a few reasons for these schools. One is that each elementary school aged child is entitled to a school within walking distance. Another is to do with maintaining services in vanishing communities. Many of these schools are on islands or in mountain villages with dramatically aging populations. Having a school gives these communities hope that they can attract young people to come back, and also gives them a greater claim to council services (we are TOTALLY a real town, have you SEEN our school?).
My experience with these schools is that they are really great environments. The children become like siblings (or, in the case of one school I taught at where six of the twelve students were brothers, they are siblings) and they get one on one attention from the teacher that is impossible in the large classes of city schools. There is also a greater involvement of the surrounding community. It is not unusual for someone’s grandfather to wander in with a brace of fish he just caught to contribute to lunch, or some the local Grannies to teach a cooking class. My students have been taking canoeing and fishing by local volunteers, and learned taiko and other traditional arts from community members. During summer at one of my small schools the kids “camped” at school overnight and the teachers dared them to climb the wooded hill behind the school in the dark. Unbeknown to the flash-light carrying kids, local people were hiding in the trees making scary sounds, rustling the bushes and generally having a fine time creating “atmosphere”. At another school we had a huge bonfire during summer vacation after spending the day being taught how to make various things from bamboo by the local elderly woodsmen. These schools may be small, but they have a lot of heart.
Learning to make traditional toys from bamboo
The next question is what will happen to them once the last student graduates. I saw a TV programme a while ago about a creative use for an abandoned school. The elderly residents of the village turned it into a social club, using the kitchens to prepare food and the beds in the infirmary to sleep over if they got too drunk to go home. Like many abandoned buildings in Japan, the school had been left fully furnished, so the old folks were even using the left over office supplies to put on magic shows and the music room for sing-alongs. Although the image of an elementary school filled with the elderly is perhaps a poignant sign of things to come for Japan, it’s a great use of an abandoned resource.
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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Getting a Psychological Evaluation in Not-Tokyo-Japan

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Rorschach Test
Source: Wiki Commons

Sometimes it feels like Tokyo is another country. Everything seems so easy there. It is teeming with ex-pat psychologists and international schools and foreign food stores. I still wouldn’t swap it for my rice-paddy studded home in Kyushu though. 

As part of our adoption application we each need to receive a psychological evaluation. At first we wanted to find a native English speaking psychologist or psychiatrist, because we were worried about nuance and shared cultural knowledge. As I said, there are quite a few in Tokyo. We are not in Tokyo, however. We were told that we had to do the assessment in person, not via video-conference, so Tokyo was out. We found an American psychologist only a day’s drive away, but he is with the Navy and was out of the country when we hoped to make an appointment. We decided to find a Japanese psychologist with an English publication history, and found a few in Kyushu. Some were no longer working at the hospitals we had contact information for. One thought we wanted help with “adapting in Japan”, and when we clarified that it was “adopting” he suggested that only a major university could handle something like that. After more than a month of calls and emails we finally found someone who would see us and made an appointment. 

The next big challenge is going to be my dear husband. He has decided that all psychologists want to hear about is “how you feel about your mother”, has his fingers crossed for ink blot tests in a white room with steel furniture and wonders if we will be asked why we’re just leaving the tortoise on its back in the sun. Maybe a lack of shared cultural knowledge will be a good thing, on second thoughts… 

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Monday, 12 November 2012

Teachers Don’t Spend a Lot of Time Teaching

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Japanese teachers of the compulsory grades spend only a fraction of their working hours teaching their actual subjects. The title of this post is misleading because even when not teaching “formally” they are of course still teaching the kids, and often the lessons outside of the classroom are the most important. But before I get into that, here’s a breakdown of what I mean.
There's usually cleaning time and sixth period for the upper graders as well.
As you can see from this time table, elementary teachers spend 5 hours a day teaching classes (225 minutes on short schedule days). Five minutes of every class consists of formalities and sometimes more if the teacher includes kanso (student responses), which they usually do in elementary. In junior high this goes down to less than a minute since by then there is theoretically less need to teach manners. So let’s reduce our count for elementary teachers at least down to 4.5 hours of course content time per day. The number of breaks the kids get is astounding to an Australian point of view, especially the way they have a ten minute break… after their lunch break.
But there are many days when not even 4.5 hours are spent on lessons. Before the annual sports day in particular, regular classes are replaced with preparations for around a month (and at JHS there is the cultural festival as well, which means at least another month of disrupted classes). There are also interruptions to classes to prepare for the graduation ceremony in March. At JHSs the first graders go on a camping trip that takes up considerable preparation time and the second graders take a trip to Kyoto that requires even more. This is extremely entertaining to watch by the way; the entire grade takes the same shinkansen (bullet train), but the train only stops briefly at the station. The students and teachers prepare for this logistical challenge by marking door-sized lines on the floor of the gym, blowing a whistle and timing how long it takes to get everyone over their line.
Teachers also don’t spend as much time preparing class materials here as Australian teachers do. Every public school in Japan teaches the same curriculum from the same range of textbooks, and there is an entire subsidiary industry dedicating to producing lesson plans, worksheets, art kits and other materials based on these textbooks. Teachers don’t even have to mark most of the students’ homework, they just hand out answer sheets and the kids correct it themselves.
In many ways you would think that Japanese teachers have it easy… and yet they spend around twelve hours a day at work and even on public holidays or weekends there are always one or two teachers at school.

So what are they doing?
Well, I’ve written about some of their activities before: they act as surrogate parents, providing kids with emotional guidance and pastoral care, and they do things that I would put firmly into the category of parents’ responsibilities including looking for kids’ lost property and searching the streets for kids who are late home. There is also a definite element of staying at work for long hours because it looks good, not because they actually have anything to do (a great number of my co-workers spend hours a day sleeping at their desks, reading the newspaper or gossiping. There are even “rest rooms” with couches and space to nap. There is also an insane focus on everything being hand-made, which I will get back to in a minute. The big killer though is the dreaded club activities. All but one or two JHS students in any given school are members of a club. They practice after school until around 7pm and every weekend. Vacations just mean more time to spend on club activities. At my husband’s high school his tennis club students recently went straight from a morning of academic tests to an eight hour uninterrupted tennis training session. When the students compete in other cities or prefectures on weekends the teachers accompany them as chaperones as well as coaches, organising hotels and sometimes driving them in their own cars. Once club activities wrap up around 7pm the teachers still aren’t free. They take it in turns to patrol the neighbourhoods where the students live until around 10pm, checking game centres to make sure there are no students inside.

As I mentioned, there is an obsession with things being “hand-made” by teachers. In elementary schools the most gratuitous example of this is the monthly displays that decorate landings and corridors. These must be hand-made and new each year, even if the same design is used every Christmas or what have you. Huge magazines come out every season with patterns and ideas for teachers to copy, but they have to do all the cutting and gluing from scratch. Buying pre-made decorations or just, I don’t know, putting up a glossy poster, are seen as unacceptable alternatives.
In junior high this translates to worksheets. If a teacher wants to make an original worksheet rather than copying one from a resource book, nine times out of ten they will painstakingly draw it up by hand with a pen and a ruler, then photocopy clip art from a book, trim it to the right size and glue it to the worksheet. I had always assumed that this was a result of the pervasive inability to use computers (until two years ago teachers in public JHSs in my city shared one PC per school, and that PC ran Windows ‘95). A fellow ALT one day made a worksheet on his laptop, though, and the teacher asked him to remake it by hand because the computer version was “cold” (impersonal or unfriendly). So it may be that it is a preference and not just technological incompetence.
High tech cooling
This preference extends beyond schools. I once spent three hours working at the board of education making an index for a big folder of documents. I was given stickers, stamps and ink pad, a cutting board and a box cutter. I had to stamp numbers on either side of the sticker, cut it in half and then match the outer edges neatly while sandwiching the page margin between the inside edges to make an index tag. The kind you can buy in packs of fifty for a dollar that would also look much neater than my ink smudged, crookedly cut ones (but lacking the heartfelt warmth of all the swearing I did while making them).

In response to Japanese students’ test scores slipping further and further in relation to Chinese and Korean students’ scores, the Education Ministry is responding with knee-jerk “add more chapters to textbooks and more school hours” responses. In my prefecture all 5th and 6th graders were required to spend part of their summer holiday this year at school taking additional maths classes. In Osaka elementary schools are going to increase to six teaching days a week. In my opinion all this does is add a further burden to teachers and increase the stress children have to deal with. There is no consideration of promoting greater efficiency at schools (or in the bloated and ineffective bureaucracies that administer them). While I personally love the relationships that exist between schools, teachers and students as a result of the additional non-classroom stuff teachers do, I also can’t see how educational outcomes can be improved unless the role of teachers is revised to focus more on teaching and less on parenting.
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