Friday, 29 March 2013

There Were Four in the Bed and the Humans Said “No More”

Plenty of room...

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is give Hayate a cuddle. He has not historically been the most affectionate of creatures, but first thing in the morning he is warm, calm and snugly. He rolls over yawning, presenting his tummy for a scratch, and nestles his head into me. Those morning moments are what make me forgive him for being a little monster during the day. Kuri is next, because she jumps off the bed the second the alarm goes off. She waits for me on the rug, and immediately rolls onto her back to lure me into scratching her tummy, upon which she takes my hand in her paws like kittens to and mouths my fingers very gently while making what I am sure she thinks are very fearsome noises. Occasionally I even say good morning to the husband, but he tends to be less cute before 6 am than the dogs are. He is also very resistant to presenting his tummy to me. So, with this picture of doggy bliss well established, why am I writing about kicking the dogs out of the bed?

What do you mean "no eating in the bed?"

They are horrible, horrible bed buddies. 

They shed. A lot.
Kuri has slept in the bed pretty consistently but Hayate only started joining her this past winter, and the addition has pushed us over the edge. Kuri is extremely aggressive in defending her spot on the bed, but she also likes to sleep under the covers.

Not a morning puppy
This means Hayate can’t really tell where she is, and has come too close a few times and sent her into a violent frenzy that is bad enough any time, but at 2 am when the frenzied dog is under your quilt, it’s horrible.
Wise he is, and your future he sees
Kuri likes to sleep on my legs (and occasionally licks my legs enthusiastically in the early hours of the morning) with her chin balanced on my feet and her nose poking out from the end of the quilt for fresh air. In other words, she puts a permanent draft up under the blankets.

I'm not talking to you
Hayate sleeps crosswise, with front and back legs stretched out for maximum bed usurpation. Hayate and Kuri have to be kept with a human between them to prevent fighting. The humans have become pretzel-shaped bits of doggy bedding.
Could I take up any more room? Why no, I don't think so...
There’s also Hayate’s habit of doing this when he is over exited just before bedtime.

Worst, though, is that if we kick them in our sleep, which is unavoidable, they tend to react badly (which is understandable but unpleasant). We haven’t had any skin piercing bites, but it is certainly scary to be woken by growls and teeth snapping near your feet. They are also sometimes too excited to see us when we wake up and leap onto our chests, which is terrifying when you are half asleep and, depending on the velocity of the dog and the time since the last nail trim, can result in a scratched face. When we have kids, they need to be able to come into our bed in the night if they want to without being scared of or scarred by the dogs. And for the sake of our sanity, we humans need to get a better quality of sleep.
But we like the bed :'(
So how do we do it? Any advice will be gratefully received. We’re buying some baby fencing and in the worst-case scenario we will just fence off the bed and put up with however long it takes before they stop crying to be let in, but that’s a traumatic way to go about it for them and us. I’d like to take a more positive approach, but I’m short on ideas. Please help!

Also, if you are interested in linking up for the J-Blogger's carnival (Eat, Drink, Cook) don't hesitate to get in touch.
Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

J-Bloggers' Carnival: Submissions Invited


Blog carnivals are a lot of fun, but Japan-related bloggers don't seem to have many (any?) to participate in. I guess it's too broad and diverse a category to easily bring together, but I'm going to try anyway, because I think that very diversity would be interesting. So without further ado, I am putting out a call for J-bloggers interested in participating in a carnival themed "Eat, Drink, Cook". The theme is intentionally broad; feel free to write on whatever related topic takes your fancy. I only ask that it has some connection with Japan, and that it be an original (previously unpublished) piece. Ideas could include anything from your favourite 'how to make a cake in a rice cooker recipe' to tales of 'fear and loathing in Kitakyushu' or your first natto eating experience.

If you have an account with Blog Carnival you can submit through the website by clicking here. If not, please email me at sopheliajapan:at:gmail:dot:com with “carnival” in the topic line. Please include a text version of your post in the body of your email. Unless pictures are essential to understanding the post there is no need to send them to me; if your post is a photo essay please email me for specific instructions. In addition to your post, please include the title and URL of your blog, an “about” of no more than four sentences, your name (as it appears on your blog) and the URL of the post you will be publishing for the carnival. If you don’t know how to find the URL for an unpublished post, please click here to see a guide.
The submission deadline is April 20th. Spring carnival posts will be published on Saturday April 27th.
Continue Reading...

Monday, 25 March 2013

A Raptor on the Road

1 comment:
I live on the edge of the suburbs. My home is decidedly suburban, but walk for five minutes and all you can see are rice fields and bamboo groves. Walk another ten minutes and you will be in a protected forest, what in Australia we call a National Park. This means that the road I ride to work on has a mix of the ubiquitous dead cats and some more rural victims of the traffic, such as squirrels and tanuki and the odd snake. There are signs warning of wild boar and monkeys, but I’ve never seen either. This morning there was a hawk on the road. It was on the small side, quite young I would guess, probably killed while enjoying some carrion. It’s never nice to see road kill, but sight of what was left of the hawk seemed particularly sad to me. They are such perfect creatures of the air, so light, agile, and effortless in the sky. For such a creature to be crushed against the hard ground, made into a weighty, damp clump that will only be pressed further and further into the road as each subsequent car rolls over it, seems a cruelly unfitting death.

So here are some weightless hawks, as they should be. 
Continue Reading...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

School is a Happy Place


Creepy mural by Japanese kindergarten kids looks like zombies
Usually school is a happy place. Sometimes there are zombies though. It's the risk you take when you allow six-year-olds to paint murals for the exterior of the school walls...

 I have written a few posts (and have a few more coming up) that talk about Japanese schools in a negative light. Overall I actually love schools here, it’s just that it is easier to quantify and describe the bad things than the good. It’s hard to write an interesting post about “atmosphere”. I’m going to try anyway, but forgive me if it’s a bit disjointed.
Rural Japanese school building beside rice field
A hawk circles the harvested field beside the school

Class Personality

Teachers have a great ability to personalise and set the town for their class, especially at the elementary level where one teacher teaches one class all day long. Good teacher quickly establish class traditions and rituals. One elementary teacher I work with has a particularly funny way of saying “good job” with an accompanying exaggerated ‘thumbs up’. He will only do it when his class are exceptional at something, and they live for it. Every time I complemented them during English class they would turn to their teacher and ask “good job?” excitedly. Even if I said they were doing a good job they wouldn't move on until they had got the coveted praise from the teacher. In some classes, when a kid wins a game there is a special “class cheer” that everyone would do for them, in some cases with a little dance. Some teachers have the kids do a kampai (“cheers”) with their milk before eating school lunch. Some teachers allow time every day for the extroverted students to do a short performance of stand up comedy or puppetry or whatever else they are into (which is a great incentive for them to keep quiet during the rest of the day). Even at JHS where teachers only teach one subject, the teachers will adapt to each class’s personality. For example, one of my JTEs asks the class every lesson about the day, date and weather. The kids raise their hands to answer. One boy always raises his hand to answer the weather, and every time he says very happily “It’s SUNNY!” If it’s raining or snowing or what have you the JTE asks with great exaggeration “REEEEEALLY?” And every time the boy answers “僕の心にいつもsunny” (it’s always sunny in my heart). You would think it would get old, but seriously, I look forward to it every time. It’s such a silly little ritual but it feels so safe, so happy and so familial. And it sets the tone for every lesson I teach with that class.
Penguin in a Japanese school, Evangelion eat your heart out
Also, sometimes there is a penguin in the staffroom when I come down for coffee.

Students Love Their Teachers, Teachers Love Their Students

Of course this isn’t universal (I don’t think there was any affection between my very bad no good JTE and her students), and it may be more the case in my part of the world than in metropolitan Japan, but the relationships between most teachers and most students here are amazing. One of my favourite junior high JTEs recently had lunch with some of her former students to celebrate their graduation from university. Yes, they still keep in touch. During an incident rescuing a kitten (who sadly did not go on to have a happy life), the kids who I was helping said to one another in Japanese “as expected from a teacher; teachers really are intelligent aren’t they?” Compare this to the popular English expression “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Over the course of the year a class will often settle on a specific caricature of their home room teacher and then proceed to draw it in various situations, occasionally even comic strips. Sometimes teachers like these representations of themselves so much they have them made into stamps that they then use when marking homework or even to sign letters. For their part, you can get a sense of the affection teachers have for their students from posts like this one and this one.
Japanese school kids standing outdoors in falling snow
They must especially love their teachers when it is snowing on school maintain climbing day...

Each Individual Has Value

I wrote an entire post about this, but I think it bears repeating. Despite the pervasive stereotype that Japan is group-centric and countries like Australia are individualistic, in Japan the entire class will wait for one student to catch up on the material. In Australia, the majority would take precedence over the individual every time. While this video is not representative of how most teachers would handle a challenge to their authority, I think the attitude of the students is pretty standard (although few kids would be brave enough to stand up to a teacher like that while so obviously frightened). The “group” is only as strong as the bonds between the individual members.
Friendship and "getting along" seem to me at least to be the primary goals of schools during the compulsory years. Academics are a very distant third behind socialisation and physical/emotional development. It's not uncommon for academic classes to be suspended for weeks at a time to give the students more time to practice their piggy-back jousting before sports day. I am completely serious. When I explain to kids the Australian system of staying back a year if you fail or skipping ahead if you do well, they were horrified at the idea of being separated from their friends. There's plenty of time after school to study, after all, but so little time to enjoy that shared experiences of daily life with your intimate friends. For reasons I don't need to elaborate on here, this appeals to me greatly.

Junglegym in Japanese school with forest in background
The boys on the jungle gym are JHS students. Nobody minds that they come back to the elementary sometimes to play. There are no slides at JHS, after all.
This isn't an exhaustive list of everything I like about Japanese schools, just a starter!
Continue Reading...

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Asperger’s and English Class

Purple clouds for an emo post... sometimes I think I'm not even trying ;)

I’ve been teaching S since he was nine. I was told that he was “abnormal” but, as is typical, no one seemed particularly interested in the specifics of his needs. I have a number of friends on the Autism Spectrum and both my mother and sister work with special needs children, so I’m fairly confident in guessing that S is an “aspy”, but it is just a guess. He loves English and has always been better than his classmates at constructing sentences, but English classes are difficult for him. They are typically noisy, high-energy and in elementary schools always a little chaotic. These issues were compounded for him by unfortunately having a home room teacher who insisted on playing karuta as the main activity every single lesson. In (English) karuta the students sit in a circle with vocabulary flashcards scattered face up in the center. The ALT says a word and the students smack their hands down onto the right card. The first person to touch it keeps it, and the winner is the student with the most cards at the end of the game. It is competitive, almost always involves screaming and kids fighting over who touched the card first, frequent scratches and bruises and S could not cope with the situation. Every class would end with him kicking over a chair or desk and running from the classroom in distress. I asked the teacher to alter the plan to an activity where S could participate more easily, but he refused. He lacked confidence in English teaching and wanted to stick to an activity he was familiar with (and that didn’t require him to use any English).
S is now finishing up his first year of junior high. His grade is the most out of control and unpleasant I have ever taught, and he is in the worst class of the whole bad bunch. For the first time ever in my ALT career there is bullying and exclusion occurring in front of me. In this unfortunate situation S is struggling, and his vile classmates have made a hobby of taunting him. In the general atmosphere of yankii-ness (it seems every boy in that grade dreams of being either a member of a bikie gang or a yakuza), they have taught S violent posturing. If he shoves another boy in the chest and yells something along the lines of “who are you fucking with, punk?” the other kids cheer and egg him on. If he raises his hand and answers a question correctly they shout abuse at him. When they are bored in class they provoke him into a breakdown and while the teacher tries to calm him down they laugh and jeer. I feel like I am describing another reality, it is so unlike any behaviour I have ever seen from kids in Japan. The girl who sits beside him was kind to him once and the horrid boys immediately began with “Are you S’s girlfriend? If you love him so much why don’t you marry him?” In her desperation to avoid being bullied herself she now won’t even look at him, and refuses to do pair work activities in class. He doesn’t understand why she suddenly hates him. He doesn’t understand why the other kids keep talking when the teacher says “stop talking” or why they all start yelling when he stands up to answer a question. When a fight breaks out he needs the teacher to tell him who was in the wrong, and he can’t understand why he is always told to just sit down, be quiet and let it go no matter what they do to him (I don’t either). And when it gets too much, he sits on the floor under the black board and hides his head in his knees or bangs on the floor, and either way the other boys mock him. One particularly bad day he became violent, kicking over chairs and desks and swinging punches. The teacher restrained him but every other kid was screaming at him at the top of their lungs and several boys were running around behind the teacher to poke his arms or kick his legs. I lost it completely and blasted the kids, dragging one boy back to his seat by the ear and making it very clear that my fury was real. I’ve never thought of myself as a violent person, but I was very close to lashing out that day.
After the class S came to see me, looking exhausted and sad. “I’m sorry” he said in English. “I’m bad. I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK” I said. “They are bad. Not you. I understand. It’s OK. I understand.” He blinked at me uncertainly and walked away. I went back to the staff room and sat down to read an email from a friend who was backing out of an important commitment she had made months before, for no good reason. I felt tears welling up in my own anger and frustration and sadness, because in some ways I feel like S. I don’t understand people at all. I don’t understand how people can be so selfish and self-absorbed. I don’t understand how someone can promise orphans that he will come to their Christmas party and then not show up because he has a hangover. I don’t understand how someone can join a charity bike-ride without raising any money for the charity, or leave a box of kittens in a school playground. Hell, I don’t even understand how you can say you’ll be somewhere at nine and then not show up until a quarter to ten. I genuinely cannot understand it; I feel like I live in a different reality and my inability to drag the people around me into my reality leaves me feeling impotent and alone. That is how I feel sometimes. I don’t feel like that all the time. I can find people who understand me and empathise with my frustrations. I can express how I feel and I have control over when I put myself in environments where I will be vulnerable to having these feelings. S can’t. We can’t even move him into another class, because they are all bad. I can tell him that I understand, but I only have a flicker of similar experience that allows me the presumption to tell him that I know how he feels. He is such a smart kid, with the ability to do so much if only his environment were appropriate to his needs. There are many many things I love about the school system in Japan, but I hate the way it lets down the students who most need support.
After that horrible day, I called my mum and she gave me some really useful advice on small things I could do in class to help S. I started slipping him a note with the lesson plan on it. He could check what was going to happen, and without the uncertainty (game? Quiz? Silent reading?) he was a lot calmer. I altered the rules of the warm-up game so that he wasn’t put in an awkward situation that often arose. I added a baseball or soccer question to every lesson because his knowledge of sports trivia is astronomical and I wanted the other kids to see him shine. All small things, but they seemed to make a big difference. Our classroom experience improved dramatically.
Then I was scheduled at other schools and didn’t come back for a long time. When I came back, S wasn’t in class. I asked the teacher if he was sick, but she told me that they had decided to send him to the special needs classroom. She apologised for his “disruption” of class, as though all the problems were his fault. It was devastating. I visit the special needs room when I can, and he seems happier and more relaxed there. But he isn’t learning. The special needs room is essentially day care. They draw and play bingo. The teachers have no specialised training and often don’t know the specifics of a student’s disability, illness or disorder: these are all lumped together; in one special needs class I taught a girl who was just there because she needed to a large piece of medical equipment that didn’t fit in the classroom, a boy with ADHD, a girl with Down’s and a girl with a severe cognitive impairment. These kids were being “taught” as one class. I’m happy that S is under less pressure and is away from the bullies, but he is intelligent and capable and I feel like his future is narrowing further and further every day because of choices his teachers have been making.
It isn’t fair.
Continue Reading...

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Definitely Not Paperless

No comments:
My city has it's own brand of toilet paper, made from recycled paper (most of it from City Hall and other bureaucratic institutions). It's great that paper and milk cartons are being recycled, but why do we have so muchu waste paper in the first place?!
A few months ago an article called “Five Things No-OneTells You About Living in Japan” was doing the facebook rounds. Some of the points were inaccurate generalisations (clinics close, but hospitals with ER units generally do not, you just have to access them by an after-hours door) but some were spot on. Technologically, Japanese daily life is closer to 1980 than 2018. Part of this is an emotional attachment to hand-made everything (see my complaining here). Part of it is maintaining tens of thousands of jobs that would be redundant in a modernised work environment (the girl who sits beside the fax waiting to send messages for you or the old man who stands beside the ATM ready to hold up a piece of cardboard to shield the screen from the glare of the afternoon sun, for example).

A graduating student was telling my husband recently that she regretted joining the school computing club instead of the English club he runs. He asked her what they did in the computing club and she said "mostly excel formulas... and sometimes we get to use the computers." Upon further enquiry she explained that the computer club met in a computerless classroom and usually practised excel formulas using pencils and paper. THE COMPUTER CLUB.

When we bought our car, we foolishly went to the dealership (having researched online and found the exact car we wanted) with cash and driver’s license and attempted to just… buy the car. This caused great consternation. First was the long discussion about whether we shouldn’t test drive some other cars first (no, thank you, we really truly just want to buy this one). Then the dealer had to make us all coffee and snacks. Then we filled out several forms. Then she told us about the process. It turned out that our inkan (little stamp that acts like a signature), although good enough to use to open a bank account and rent a house, was not official enough for a car. We had to get a certificate of registration from city hall. We also had to visit the real estate agency, who in turn had to call our land lord, and then issue certificate stating that we had off-street parking (this is unnecessary if you have a K-car). We had to take this certificate to the police station, along with the forms from the dealership, and wait three to five days for the police to give the dealership permission to sell us the car. In the meantime the dealer had to personally confirm the existence of our carport by doing a drive-by of our house. We also had to get our voluntary (note: not really voluntary) insurance organised before we could drive the car home. It took about two weeks, and the dealer told us that we should be please at how quickly we managed to do everything. Just think of the hours of work involved (all done with pen and paper, then digitalised on a machine probably running Windows ‘95, then filled into a filling cabinet at some central data storage facility) and the number of people who were involved in the transaction. When Japan does experience the digital revolution, the social consequences in terms of employment may be as profound as the consequences of the industrial revolution.
Follow my blog with Bloglovin
Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Charity Cycling, Foundation 18, and Bloggers Matter

1 comment:

Pre-Ride Yoga, 2010 Ride, Day 2
 This weekend is the 16th Annual Oita AJET Charity Bike Ride, a big event on the Kyushu ex-pat calendar. Both foreigners of a dozen nationalities and Japanese participants travel from all over the country to take part (eight different prefectures are being represented this year). Riders and volunteers fund-raise throughout the two-day, two-prefecture-long ride. In the past the ride has supported tsunami victims in Japan and raised enough in one ride to build a primary school in Sri Lanka through Room to Read. This year the ride is supporting Foundation 18, a charity whose primary focus is an orphanage (with a second soon to be built) in Indonesia. Foundation 18 is providing a culturally appropriate upbringing for the girls in its care (rarer than you might think) and also has a range of other activities in the broader community including helping women escape from human trafficking and caring for elderly people without families.
If you would like to support Foundation 18 you can donate as little or as much as you like via paypal here. If you donate after reading this, please write Oita Charity Bike Ride in the donation comments and leave a comment here too so we can include you in our tally ;) If you want to help out Foundation 18 and also love buttons, check out SkullButtonry. The profits from this lovely Etsy shop all go to Foundation 18. International shipping is reasonable (I bought a bunch myself).

So why do bloggers matter? Well, this is a very small blog and it really doesn’t matter. However, being an occasionally lonely ex-pat some time ago I searched for other Australian ex-pat blogs and found the wonderful 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle. One day Kirsty posted about the also wonderful Edenland, so I followed the link and started reading that blog as well. Eden blogs from time to time about Cate Bolt, Foundation 18 and SkullButtonry. It was as a result of all these loosely connected events that I was able to suggest Foundation 18 to the Oita AJET committee as a charity to consider supporting with this year’s bike ride. So in summary, a charity in Indonesia run by an Australian is being supported by a bunch of people from all over the world cycling through Japan as a result of a chain of blog posts beginning in Doha. 

Bloggers matter.

Continue Reading...