Sunday, 30 October 2011


There are many stereotypes that western people hold about the Japanese. Some of them are true, like the one that says that the Japanese never get to the point, always circling around an issue, very much beating about the proverbial bush and will sometimes even tell you incorrect information to avoid offending you. Some are not correct, like the one that says that the Japanese are always extremely polite (in the last few weeks my English sensibilities have been mightily offended by queue jumping), or that Japanese children are extremely well disciplined and obedient.

There are certain situations where I’ve found the Japanese to be extraordinarily rude or offensive, and they usually revolve around the fact that I am a foreigner. These observations are the natural result of having a country where very few people travel abroad and where there is next to no immigration. Japan is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on Earth.

It is extremely common in my experience, to be walking down the street and simply be stared at. Among children this is most prevalent. I used to think it was cute when they would scream “Harroooo” at you and then piss themselves laughing. Now I find it tiresome. But there’s a certain indulgence one must have with kids that I do not extend to adults who, everywhere else in the world (in Western Europe and America at least), know better.
To the Japanese, it is hilarious to see a foreigner trying to speak Japanese. In supermarkets, I often feel like a comedian just for saying “please” and “thank you”. Add into the equation the fact that I cannot yet instantly recognise the value of each yen coin and I’ll be on “Tonight at the Apporro” before you know it. Perhaps it’s a nervous thing, and perhaps they’re not trying to be rude, but I for one, when trying to speak a foreign language, find it a little bit infuriating to be constantly laughed at. Once, in a supermarket queue, I turned to the people behind me and gave them an extremely impolite rebuke while bowing and smiling, which they lapped up mirthfully.
Assuming, as they do, that white people could never speak Japanese, it is perfectly normal for Japanese people to talk about you quite obviously when you’re sitting there. This has happened to us in bars, in the street, on the train and even at work. One of my employers has an awful habit of talking to my students about me while I’m there, though it’s extremely clear that I am not included in the conversation, as she doesn’t look or gesture towards me.

There are times, I think, when this borders on racism. More than once, members of our group have had words like “Shiro!” (white), “Gyunyu!” (milk), or “Yankee!” shouted at them, and we’ve picked up these words in the conversations we’ve overheard. Speaking to our Japanese friends reveals that these are pretty unpleasant taunts that have not been acceptable in the UK for quarter of a century at least.

Japanese culture, I think, insists that JAPAN IS DIFFERENT. The Japanese revel in the idea that they are a special race, a special nation, set apart from their neighbours and the rest of the world. This creeps up everywhere.
The Japanese creation myth talks of the sun god dipping his sword into the sea to form Japan; the rest of the world is not mentioned. At parties, Japanese guests clap with glee when one of us holds a glass with two hands to receive beer or wine or something, crying “Aaaaaah! Japanese style!!!”. It is often used as a weird excuse for things too. There was an instance where I was about to teach a lesson and had a glass of water in my hand. I was stopped and told by my employer “aaaah, in Japan, we don’t teach with a drink”. What she meant was: I enjoy control so I’m going to stop you doing this and you don’t need any justification. Suffice it to say, you’re foreign so you wouldn’t understand.
And the Japanese love this. They seem to love underlining all the differences between “us” and “them”. If I tell a Japanese person that I’ve eaten sushi, they are shocked: “eeeeeeeh, you can eat sushi?!?!”. Yes, of course I can eat bloody sushi; my mouth opens, closes, masticates and swallows just like yours. “Eeeeeeh, you can use chopsticks?!?!”, “you can eat rice?!?!”. And they often seem slightly disappointed when you tell them that you don’t find Japanese food difficult to eat, or when you tell them that Japanese grammar is no more difficult than French grammar or something else. It begs the question what they think we eat all day in a country where “bread” is more or less inedible and the western style “food” scarcely deserves that title.

I was fascinated to discover that very few of the Japanese people I’ve come into contact with have ever left Japan. Even those who project an image of being internationally minded have, at best, once been to Korea or something. Very few have come to Europe.

Japan is truly a fascinating place, but I would say the same about many of the other countries I’ve been to, and at least the people in those countries were aware that other countries existed. 

Right, back to being confused by things.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Bite-sized Japanter - N°17

BSJ N°17 - in English, we might refer to new membesr of staff at a company or the Freshers at University "fresh meat". This has more cultural relevance than you might realise, especially when you learn that in Japan the equivalent is and I'm not making this up新しい米: atarashii kome or "new rice". 

Bite-sized Japanter - N°16

BSJ N°16 - Coming home from my friend Hiro's house in Kurume, I noticed at the JR station that certain carriages on the morning commuter trains have ladies only trains. In the picture below, they're marked with pink Ls.

This is because Japan has something of a problem with men groping women on trains when they're very crowded.

Sake フェスタ

Last weekend some of the gang headed down to Kurume on the JR line for a Sake festival = 先週の土曜日電車で久留米へ日本酒を飲みに行きました. We heard about this through a friend we inherited from last year’s lot “Mick”, though I’m sure that’s not his real name. He met us off the train in Kurume, a large-ish town south of Tosu which reminded me weirdly of Gateshead (don’t ask me why). Here are some pictures:

Also with him was a Yankee guy called Patrick who, along with Mick, described himself as a Nihon-shu nut. Nihon-shu is the correct name for what we call Sake.
We walked through a strange shopping arcade; there seem to be a lot of these places in Japan, long galleries filled with incorrect English and oddly fronted shops filled with things that haven’t been fashionable since the Eighties (though until recently the same could be said of the Conservative party).
The festival was in a park and was a heavenly thing. You paid 1500(around 12 GBP)on the door and they gave you a little thimble and a book to tick off the near one hundred different Sakes you could try in the four long tents around the park. North Kyushu, I am told, is one of a few big Nihon-shu producing areas, Napa of Nippon, Speyside of the Orient, Jura in Japan. And only a small sample of the local brewers were represented. But represented they were, with beautiful blue robes and even more beautiful products.

Knowing little of the ‘shu, I took my pick based on the prettiness of the bottle; the competition, like the stuff itself, was stiff but I managed. And I got quite 酔っぱら (yopparai) quite early on.  As it got colder, we took on the hot stuff, (atsukan).
Fun was had by all, and I staggered off home at around three, satisfied that I’d had a deliciously oriental afternoon. 

Friday, 21 October 2011

Rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is

This time last week I was extremely pissed off with the Japanese fetish for unthinkingly obeying authority. 

Rules is rules, of course, but it doesn’t matter how daft the rule is, how trivial or indeed how inconvenient. If it is so it is so and an attempt to modify or smooth past things is met with hostility.
That’s the sort of thing I sort of knew before coming here, but I am continually surprised at the pervasiveness of it all.
It manifested itself most directly with the situation involving our bikes. Cambridge house very generously loans us a fleet of bikes. To get the bike key, we have to surrender our room key (hell a month ago because you need your room key to be able to have the air conditioning on).

Like everything else on this archipelago, the bikes have their place, a little shed round the back of the building. Our bikes, like our rooms, are therefore segregated from everyone else’s, put in a semi-privileged position that makes it clear that we are not the same. The gaijin-shed is right round the back from the front gate such that when you come home after around 6:00 and the side door to the building is shut, you have a considerable walk back to the front to be able to get in. It is infinitely more convenient, therefore, to leave your bike at the front where everyone else leaves there’s.
I should say that on the bikes it is clearly marked, on the mudguards, that they are the foreigner bikes. But who’s looking ey?

Henry-san and I began to leave our bikes in the convenient place around the front. A week ago, running late for a teaching job, I went to retrieve it so I could cycle to the station. I got to where I had left it and saw that it wasn’t there. After a little panic, I rushed to the back of the house and, lo and behold, there it was. I was, of course, late.
I was very angry and creeped out at the feeling of being surveyed all the bloody time. It seems that someone is employed to inspect the ranks and ranks of chained up bikes that form a ring around Cambridge House in order to make sure that the pointless rules are followed. Because I'm white I am constantly watched here, in the street, in a shop and, it seems, through my bike.

Undeterred, I resolved to keep putting my bike in the convenient place. I lost the battle though? On one occasion I found my bike had been upturned and placed, still locked, on one of the park benches. A clear message. Then, when I went to get the key, there was a note attached instructing the person on reception to give me a bollocking.

The guy had extremely basic English so told me “there no good. No good. No. Back!” And then, lending the exchange a sinister air, he added “Use caution!”

Bite-sized Japanter - N°15

BSJ N°15 – being in Japan, the absence of good sweet food really pains me. No crumble, no good cake, no luscious crunchy palmiers from the three boulangeries on my street. I was bemoaning this state of affairs to my friend Hiro and I asked him if there was a way of saying “sweet tooth” in Japanese. There is, and it’s wonderful.

“I have a sweet tooth” is 甘党です (amatou desu)). A translation of this would be « I’m in the sweet group », but a more Japanterous and indeed faithful translation is « I’m a member of the Sweet Party », “tou” being used for political parties. This contrasts 辛党 (karatou), the Spicy Party (though I think it can also be used to just mean savoury).
Imagine cross-generational political engagement if we could vote for the Sweet Party or the Spicy Party, if BBC Parliament were as fun as watching Nigella’s Naughty Midnight Feasts or whatever. I, for one, would be a marginal voter, attracted by utopian promises of tighter curry-heat regulation but mindful of the practical benefits of levies on imported biscuits and cakes. Perhaps the parties’ positions on whether a Jaffa cake would fall within the purview thereof would swing it for me.

As Japanteraddendum, karatou, a savoury tooth, is a polite way of saying “piss-head”. 

Bite-sized Japanter - N°14

BSJ N°14 – one of the vending machine tea-brands is called ‘Pungency’. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Bite-sized Japanter - N°13

BSJ N°13 – in our Japanese history lesson we learned about a building firm called Kongô-gumi, a Korean construction firm that has been going for over 1,400 years. It was bought by a different firm in 2006, but until then was the longest established firm in the world. It was set up in the 8th century by a family of artisans brought from Korea, and built temples in Japan (Osaka in particular). Actually, Japan has the highest number of companies over 1,000 years old. Who knew!?

Bite-sized Japanter - N°12

BSJ N°12 – Bridgestone, the tyre company, is actually Japanese. Not a very Japanese name ey? It turns out it’s a calque translation of the kanji in the founder’s name. Mr Ishibashi, or Mr. Stonebridge. Hai!

Bite-sized Japanter - N°11

BSJ N°11 - Last night I was watching news on NHK (the Japanese BBC) and it was covering the protests and riots in Greece. A bewildered Japanese reporter was walking alongside the disgruntled Hellenics and, so my friend Hiro tells me, came out with a tirade about how the Greeks are unhappy because the government wants them to work and they are too lazy to work!

Di-fu-ran-to wa-ru-do fi-u desu!

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Chapter the First :                  Of Vikings and Emperors
Chapter the Second :             Of Temples and Cliff Faces
Chapter the Third :                 Of Wealth and Misdeed
Chapter the Fourth :               Of Feasting and Quests

すみません何山ですか    « Sumimasen, nan yama desu ka ? »
若杉山です                       « Wakasugiyama desu »
そですか                            « So desu ka ? »

Chronicle the First: “Of Vikings and Emperors
And it came to pass in those wanton days that such as were the needs of the people, so too did spring forth the satisfaction of those requests, and in good time the indigenous people of the land did open their hearts unto the travellers and forsooth and in peace the latter were brought unto a great feasting hall, calf, sushi and unlimited tea and coffee were slain and a Viking was had and was rejoiced and the assembled supped and glutted and the heavens were full with gleaming angels singing “Blessed is he that does not place his chopsticks sticking up in the rice” and “We bear good news for all mankind thatat a Viking it truly is all you can eat so long as you can put up with comments from the Japanese about how much you can put away”.
Verily I say to you that the food was good and plentiful and the company mirthful, though the scattering of Babel had rendered unto the assembled great pains in conversation making.
So it was that a serving lady did come down into the land of the feasting bringing glad tidings, that he who should inscribe his details upon the parchments she bore should graciously gain, the heavens willing, a chance to bathe and feast again and that no silver should from his house be taken. And so there was once more much rejoicing, and the travellers were regaled with glorious tales of nudity and bathing until the time came for the travelers to themselves place their mark upon the parchments. A cold wind swept across the land, and the travellers were struck with a grievous confusion when it became knownst unto them that the layout which had been ordained for them to inscribe the names of their fathers in, and the names their fathers gave them in and the year in which their mothers did bear them unto this world in were not as they wouldst behold in their native Albion. And so it came to pass that despite Babel and despite the wicked violence that this might do unto social convention, the natives did in their kindness deign to assist the travellers in the accomplishment of this labour, translating the year and moon and day as it was beheld in the distant west into such a system as it might be understood there in the orient, paying due homage to the Emperor of that land. And so it was that 1989 became the first year of the Heisei Emperor and there was a message sent about the land that he who should wish to accompany a small group of the natives on a pilgrimage across the wet plains to the mount that is called Wakasugiyama should embark into the carts duly provided and they should be at peace until the holy mountain yonder was attained.

Chronicle the Second: Of Temples and Cliff Faces
The pilgrimage in the oriental winter was hard and many perished in the difficult conditions. As many as were living were sustained by the bounties that 7-11 did provide so and verily the tenderness of the sweet music (including such classics as Toire no kami sama) that did spring forth from the music boxes did give suckle for their parched mouths.
And it came to pass that the assembled did achieve the base of the holy mountain that is called Wakasugiyama and did in their piety go forth and ascend as it is written (on the tourist info map). The summit of the mountain that is called Wakasugiyama was distant and the path that led to it strewn with rocks and stones but in faith and in wisdom traveller and native did continue to ascend until it came to pass that the vaults of the skies were reached and the weary might rest and the flies be swatted and the paras be glided. For so it was in those days that many had, in their self-moving carts desecrated the places that are holy on the mountain that is called Wakasugiyama, holy punishment being ordained for them on high. Such was the judgment of the heavens that those who had so sullied the pure shrines and holy temples should be attached with rope to great crescents of infernal canvas and should thus be struck off into the abyss that does surround the heaven-made world and should in torment and in defeat be suspended up high. The travellers beheld these mysteries and were amazed and did in haste to the temples proceed so that they too might purify themselves in water and give thanks and offerings of silver coins.
Possessed by devotion the travellers did descend to a cliff face where idols were carved and were carried by their faith (and a chain bored into the rock) down that face.  
So it was that the pilgrimage to the mountain that is called Wakasugiyama was consummated and the weary did return to their places of rest to rid themselves of the shadow of their wearinesses and prepare for the next rising of the sun.

Chronicle the Third: Of Wealth and Misdeed
…[this part of the Chronicles seems to have been lost with the passage of time, and the fragments that we still have are not of sufficient quality of clarity to attempt a reconstruction. A suggested thematic, however, is provided in a text “Linden Hall Sports Day” published by Japanter.]

Chronicle the Fourth: Of Chronicles and Quests
It is written “Blessèd are the Japanterous, for they shall inherit the earth and even if they don’t they’ll have a bloody good time”. And so as it is written did the Japanterous ones, John of Dewsbury, Grahame of Anderson and G-Dawg of Seoul in the land of Kankok, who had achieved glory in the vaults of the mountain that is called Wakasugiyama, did in mirth and in revelry come down into the City which is called Fukuoka and did imbibe and did make mischief. They did come to a stall with a man selling foodstuffs and did inquire of the man as to whether they might take a seat and in mercy he did grant that they should be seated and did feed them with pig-bone broth and noodles and meat and with beer that is called Asahi and they did feast and were contented and did return to their own lands where fermented fruit juices were taken.
John of Dewsbury and his companion set off into the night and verily did they lose their way in the streets of the City that is called Futsukaichi and so it was that two circles of the clock did pass until they at last found slumber in the House which is called Cambridge.

And there was no rejoicing ‘cos I fell asleep straight away and it took me an hour and half this morning to realise that I’d left the light on all night. 

There's poetry in them there Kanji!

This is the dawning of the age of Kanji, the Chinese characters, probably imported to Japan in the 1st Century AD. In any case, the first recorded use of Kanji in Japan was in 57AD with a golden seal given by the Han Chinese Emperor Guangwu. In our Japanese history lessons we’ve been learning about the various machinations that led to the Japan we know and love today and so much of it comes from its gargantuan western neighbour, and much of it through Kyushu and Fukuoka. Where’d you get that tea Japan? Where’d you get that Buddhism?

The Kanji are complicated and beautiful like a Parisian woman but useful and technical like a Munich engineering student. And they’re bloody difficult to learn.

The Japanese have a kanji for most nouns and verbs and adjectives, conjunctions and, probably, conjunctivitis. A lot of them are imported wholesale from the Chinese equivalents (so I’m looking forward to going back to the mainland and seeing how much I can read), though many, the so called “Kokuji” or “national characters” were, like a Toyota or a Mitsubishi, made in Japan following a system developed overseas.
Speaking generally, they each have a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading, a kunyomi and an onyomi. Generally speaking, the kunyomi is used when the word represented by the kanji is used in isolation, while the onyomi is used when the kanji combines with others to make a new word.
Onna umi e ikimashita
The woman went to the beach
Joshi umi e ikimashita
The girl went to the beach
Here, woman () on its own is given its kunyomi, “onna”, whereas when it is used with another kanji to mean girl ( 女子- literally woman child)  it gets the onyomi and becomes “jo” to make “joshi”.

I think that’s pretty cool, though it becomes quite difficult with some kanji that have a couple of onyomis, a couple of kunyomis. The kanji for “day” or “sun” is , but this can be read in a couple of different ways: ひ (hi) び (bi) か (ka) are some of the kunnyomis; 二 (ni) ニチ (nichi) ジツ (jitsu) are the onyomis. As one of my students often mutters to herself : “difficurt, difficurt” !

When we first started Japanese lessons, Seb was quick to point out that there was no alternative for just sitting down and writing out the kanji again and again until you can remember them and their readings. Putting his 24 years of experience next to my 6 weeks, I think this needs revising.
Laurie-san (I think) borrowed a book from one of the teachers at the Linden Hall junior high school (I think) which is a systematic way of memorising the kanji. By “The Kanji” I mean the 2 000 or so kanji specified by the Japanese government as the standard ones that are allowed to appear in official documents and which all Japanese schoolkids should be able to read by the end of education.
The book is called “Remembering the Kanji” by a Mr. Heisig. Unlike the “Basic Kanji Book” we’ve been doing along with our classes, the Heisig method does not present the kanji in a series based on how useful or frequent they are, or based on themes. Instead, Heisig does two special things. 1) He breaks down the kanji into their component parts (I won’t say “graphemes” or “radicals” yet because I’m not 100% sure of the proper meanings of those terms) and presents some kanji which use those components. He calls them “primitives”. 2) He creates little stories that link together the component parts of the kanji and the meaning of the kanji such that memorising how to write the kanji is a simple matter of remembering which component parts go into the story. I can vouch for the fact that it is a million times faster than memorising the stroke orders over and over again.  

There are some simple kanji that are pictographic and, as such, don’t really take much remembering: the sun (), mouth (), tree (), &c.
Others get the full Heisig treatment. Let’s take the kanji for wealth: . Here you can see the primitives for house (), one (), mouth (), and rice field (). As Heisig would put it, the wealthy household keeps and eats a disproportionate amount of rice for itself. If you can remember that incendiary statement, your kanji recall will be on fire!
Some are a bit more tenuous though: the kanji for a petition () contains the kanji for meadow (itself made up of the primitives for cliff, small and white) and for head. Heisig spins some tale about small white flowers sitting under a cliff that borders a meadow and how they have the light blocked out by a giant stone head and so form a petition to have it removed. Well, it sort of works.
Others, I think, are gorgeous. The kanji for seduction is , made of the primitives for sword and mouth : I love the idea that seduction is simply turning your mouth into a deadly weapon !

There is a danger with this that one gives to the kanji or to these primitives a meaning that they simply don’t have, carried away by the poetry of it all. For instance, Heisig says that one of his primitives means “baseball” which I am almost certain the ancient Chinese did not have.
Another issue with this method is that it is, as Laurie-san put it, it’s very much all-or-nothing. I have learned the kanji for “gall-bladder” (), but not the kanji for “to be” or “to say”. If I stick with the method to the full 2 000 I will get there, but not if I don’t.

Still, I find this method an attractive one, not simply because I’m getting very good results from it, but because it combats a sort of intellectual bone-headedness prevalent in Japan that says that the only way to learn things is to simple memorise thousands of set phrases, or actions, or statements, or ideas or movements until you’ve memorised them all. But language is not a memory game. Language is not, nor was it ever, simply a list of words that we say that mean things. It breaks my heart when I teach children who can ably rattle off the names of a hundred different things that they’ve seen a hundred different times on a hundred different flashcards, completely fall apart if I ask them a question phrased in a way they’ve never heard it phrased that requires an answer they’ve not memorised. Absolutely no thinking takes place; all they want is recall and it’s bad because huge time and financial resources are committed to an enterprise which rarely if ever, bears fruit. When I get the train home from Tenjin, the railway is at such a height that you can see into the classrooms of various “cram schools” that line the route. And I can almost hear the poor young’uns reciting things like “I am fine thank you, how are you”, and the teacher telling them that “I’m fine, cheers” or “Yeah, alright”, is “incorrect”: don’t think, learn!
It’s called Bushido or the “way of the warrior”: the idea that mastery of an art comes from infinite repetitions of the actions or words of the master and it dominates Japanese society to this day. Outside Cambridge House when coming home, I am often displeased to find the baseball team out there, “practising” their swings in my direction. I can’t really see how practising the swinging motion without a ball is all that useful, as it’s the coordination that counts, not the swinging itself no?

In any case, I find Heisig interesting and exciting and I’m learning to draw some beautiful characters which will, of course, be of zero use to me in Europe.

In other news, I bought a basil plant yesterday. I thought it was dead this morning but I gave it a drink and it woke up. 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Seb's incredible tracksuit (and other tales from the Linden Hall Sports Day)

Today was the Linden Hall Sports Day. In truth, it was the every-school-in-Japan’s Sports Day too, but I went to the one at Linden Hall. In classic Linden Hall style, our attendance was compulsory but there was not a great deal for us to do. The super-keen among us went in early; the rest of us arrived at 9:30. I wore my England football strip while the rest were “asked” to wear some Linden Hall stash.

The kids were at their cutest: trying their damnedest, smiling the day away and being naughty but innocent. Though some of the events were a little martial for my liking, the day was sunny and enjoyed by most, so I can’t really object. Just like the kids, I got super-excited when it came to the parent/gaijin relay and was shouting for the blue team (I found it a little uncomfortable when they were shouting “White is best”, and “power to the whites”). I took photos on Davido-san’s camera which might yet be uploaded.

The day went without a hitch, except the moment when I accidentally called some one common (I said that he and Henry had a "common" accent as they're both from Leeds, meaning the same rather than plebian. Mais bon).

To celebrate the conclusion of a successful Sports Day (it’s a serious business over here, so much so that the past four days have been dedicated to nonstop rehearsal and the next two will be nonstop holiday!), the Chancellor of the University (whose family also owns Linden Hall and several hundred other schools across Japan) took us to a posh restaurant up a mountain (which by pure coincidence is the same mountain (Wakasugiyama) that I climbed yesterday.) It was a bit like a James Bond set: a modernist style hall with windows from the floor to the ceiling, unlimited wine (revolutionary) and other such booze and – très à la Japonaise – drunken falsetto singing.

Though the rest of the crew have gone out for more dreadful singing (Futsukaichi karaoke) I have opted to come home and write to you all: I’m getting up at 6:30 tomorrow as I’m teaching at 8 in Hakata! 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Bite-sized Japanter - N°10

BSJ N°10 – on formal letters, it is customary in Japan not to write your date of birth / the date using the standard Gregorian calendar (though this is generally used for less formal things). Instead, the Japanese do as the British used to do for Acts of Parliament and speak in terms of the reign of the monarch: the Nengô (年号) or “Era name”. As such it turns out I was born in Heisei 1, or the first year of the reign of Akihito. Anyone born before the 8th January 1989 was born in the Shôwa era, that being the posthumous name given to Emperor Hirohito.  

Bite-sized Japanter - N°9

BSJ N° 9 - In Japan, a popular way to have brunch is with a ヴィキング , or “Viking”. This is not a tall, blonde haired Nordic type, but rather what we might call a “buffet” or an “all-you-can-eat”. I suppose the long-boatmen did treat my native north east of England as something of an all you can eat/all you can rape/all you can pillage buffet, so the Japanalogy works!  

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The [whole] is noise

In recent days, my ears have become increasingly exasperated with the constant and ubiquitous cacophony for which the Japanese seem to have a superhuman tolerance. Everything is noisy here and silence is a luxury.

This first came to the conscious fore of my brain at Linden Hall. As we do thrice a week, we were sitting twiddling our thumbs in the school’s staff room. I had just poured three cups of barley-tea (which, I assure you, has not the slightest bit of euphemism about it) when a sick-making, crushing, piercing noise exploded through the air. The Japanese secretariat was wholly unphased. At first it crossed my mind that this one of those noises that only young people could here, of the sort that Spa employs to keep toddlers from playing in its automatic doors. Then, and only fleetingly, I thought that there might be a physiological factor that meant that the western ear suffered more in the presence of such sonic bombardment. After a few minutes my ears began to ache and I asked one of the “home-room” teachers what the hell it was. It was the laminator and she switched it off.
I spoke to said teacher later on and she told me of her views on Japanese racket-resistance, telling me that I would be “amazed” at how much noise a Japanese person could put up with.

And it’s true:
  1. On the trains, you are constantly force-fed information. My Japanese is, of course, not good enough to understand fully what is being said, but I can make out place names, platform numbers, arrival times and the like. On a ten minute journey from Asakuragaido to Shimo-Ori, I do not need to be told the temperature, and I can check my watch if I want to know the time.
  2. Pedestrian crossings in Japan don’t just beep to tell blind people that it’s safe to cross. In Fukuoka prefecture, at least (I’ve not had the same experiences when in Saga, just to the south) there are two little tunes that play. On repeat. They’re annoying electronic tunes that make you feel like you’re living inside a game-boy, which is cute and retro for the first hundred encores, but gets frustrating soon after. I said there were two tunes, and I suspect that there’s a rhyme and a reason as to when each is played though I’ve not yet worked that out.
  3. Every time one goes into a shop, one is greeted with a lung full of welcome from the entirety of the store’s staff, or at least those who see you walk in. This is often not just a welcome, but an entire stream of pronouncements punctuated with several “hai!”s. And even then it doesn’t end. Staff seem to just be shouting to themselves at all times. Perhaps they’re advertising or something, but it just never ends. Then as you leave, they talk you through your purchases, as if this were the check-out, and give you a second chorus of salutation to see you on your way again.
  4. On the street in Tenjin today, we were struck, not for the first time, just how noisy a Japanese city can be. Of course, cities the world over are buzzing places, but in Japan there seems to be no law against pumping volumey “music” onto the streets day and night. The aeroplanes fly low into the centrally located airport, and street performance is common. This can add atmosphere, but if your ears are tired from a few minutes of retail dystherapy, then it can be a bit much.
  5. And as for that retail dystherapy, this is where Japanese loudness-lovin’ reaches its peak. Today we were in a cool vintage shop in Tenjin core. The cacophony was such that I had to cover my ears and am considering buying some earplugs (they’re available at Family Mart, just down the street from Cambridge House). Standing in the queue to buy a belt, I realised that my ears where under attack from two TV sets at high volume, two conflicting pieces of music, staff members shouting whatever it is that they shout, and someone on  microphone also, it would seem, announcing prices for things.

My ears are still hurting. 

OK, we're going clubbing now.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The night I lost my Tenjinity

No, it wasn’t gentle with me, although it knew it was my first time; yes, I felt sore afterwards. The other night, the Japanterous core of the group did what it should have done a long time ago and went and had a little nocturnal boogy in the boogyin’ heart of Fukuoka, Tenjin.

The prélude to the story is set in the Cambridge House dining hall, where a precocious Korean dude decided to sit next to us and join in with what was inevitably some first class Japanter. Tim, Japalumni from last year, had told us what a cool guy he was so we invited him for the impending carnage and he, being the trooper that he is, came along.

We took the last train into Tenjin on the Nishitetsu line and bounced across to the going-out area, and to a bar/club called FUBAR which I subsequently discover is an acronym: Fucked-Up Beyond All Recognition. Perfect. Little mystery then that, Seong-Min, our new Korean friend decided to stand outside the entrance, through his arms in the air and scream “Let’s get fucked-up”. There was never a prouder moment for me as a teacher of English as a foreign language.

FUBAR is one of these nomihodai joints: you pay a flat rate on the door (lamentably cheaper for girls than for boys) and drink as much as you want/can for the rest of the night (till five in the morning).

The first thing that struck us was how small the place was, despite being billed as an institution in Fukuoka-going-out. The next thing to hit us was that it’s full of smoke. Ain’t no ban here! And the third thing is that it’s full of bloody foreigners, coming over here, drinking our drinks, chatting up our girls &c. In over a month I had not seen anywhere near this many white faces in one place; I also saw my first two black people, one camp Michigan-Texan and one seductive New Zealander. Takes all sorts.
The drinks were all cocktails, and Seong-Min recommended the “Kahluah-milk” a recommendation I summarily ignored. For political reasons (I needed some caffeine) I drank Cuba Libre all night, as the beer in Japan is fizzy and pissy.

The atmosphere of the place was wonderful:
The music had peaks and troughs, as they alternated between a trio of wannabe gangster DJs, big caps, oversized hockey-jerseys and the rest of it. We all chuckled with delight as they whacked in the English song titles between torrents of Japanese. When it was camp and good we danced, when it was hardcore we drank. Sadly, our (Henry-san’s) request for LL Cool J’s 1990 classic “Mama said knock you out”, which is quickly becoming a karaoke stalwart, did not make it onto the decks (there’s always next time).  
It was quite clear that the crowd was a regular crowd. Lots of bright young things (with the occasional weirdo I might add). There was one guy who wouldn’t leave us alone, kept getting very close to me, copying my dance moves (and that’s a big no-no with such fine shapes), and insisting that I drink some of the tequila shots he was carrying round on a tray. I (decreasingly) politely declined. When I was standard at the bar, he hit me in the side of the head with said tray then staggered off.
I loved the school-disco feel of the place (abstraction faite de the open displays of drinking and smoking, though the snogging was right on message). Every body was clearly having a smiley good time and though many of the Japanese people hardly spole any English they kept coming up to us and having a dance. When one accidentally knocked into Mashu-san, he stopped mid-thrust to give a very deep bow, palms together and everything. Though they couldn’t sing the English words properly, they more than made up for it on the songs that had non-vocal bits: “Oooooooh-oooooh-ooooooooooooooooooooooooh” &c. Perhaps this explains Lady Gaga’s near fanatical devotion here. Or maybe it doesn’t. It was sweet to see strangers arm in arm, belting out tunes in imperfect unison.

The others got bored around 3:30 I think so disappeared for forty-five minutes. But they knew on which side their bread was buttered (completely inappropriate idiom for Japan) and soon came crawling back. Yeah, that’s right.

Getting home was perfectly simple too. In the still warm early morning air we shuffled along to the train station where the 5:15 first train was waiting for us.
On we got and home we got.

The night was fun, safe and easy and it’s often difficult to say that on the other side of the globe I think.