Support a Poet & Former JET


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Have you ever met someone only to find out they’ve been your neighbor for years? Surprisingly enough, I had such an experience in Japan.

The majority of JETs placed in Fukuoka are from Hawaii, as Fukuoka and Hawaii are Sister States. While I was there, Americans from the mainland were precious few, and my first year, I knew only one other from Michigan in Fukuoka. In my second year, I met an ALT who was not only from Michigan, but from Detroit! When she mentioned Clark Park my jaw hit the floor. Southwest Detroit!

We went to different schools and universities, and Southwest Detroit being as populous as it is, it’s not really a surprise we never crossed paths here. But to meet in Japan! Imagine that.

Now, this friend, Alicia (Fukuoka 2010-2013), is trying to go overseas again, albeit not so long-term. She has won a partial scholarship to attend a writers’ conference in Prague, and has been saving up and working hard to raise the rest of the money she needs. So, she will have a poetry reading this coming Wednesday, the 25th, at Detroit’s own Spanish tapas restaurant, La Feria.

The event is called "Tapas de Poesía," which we could translate to something like "Appetizers of Poetry."

The event is called “Tapas de Poesía,” which we could translate to something like “Appetizers of Poetry.” I made this flyer, but the drawing is ©2012 A.L. Castañeda.

If you can’t attend this reading but would still like to support this poet & former JET, you can make a donation online through You can donate anonymously if you want, and any amount helps, even if it’s just as much as it takes to buy a tall latté at Starbucks. So far, she has received $3200 in donations, and only needs $1800 more. So, how about it? ^_^/☆

Of Samurai and Scholar Athletes


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Last week I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts with some friends to see the special exhibit Samurai: Beyond the Sword. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve only got until June 1st to do so. (And if you’re a Wayne State student or alum, today is the last day you can get the “Warrior Wednesday” discount. It’s been extended through May.)

From the DIA's exhibit site.

“Tousei gusoku,” (当世具足) a type of armor common in the Tokugawa Era. From the DIA’s exhibit site.

It was a pretty good exhibit. As advertised, there were not only swords and armor on display, but also painted screens, ceramics for use in tea ceremony, paintings, woodblock prints, and other types of art. That’s not to say that the swords and armor weren’t artful, as they most certainly were. There was even a case or two with just sword hilts and fittings, so you could really see the detail and craftsmanship that went into every part of the sword. Short, explanatory videos in each section of the exhibit helped bring the displayed items to life. And, according to one friend, who started off listening to the accompanying adult audio tour but ended up switching to the children’s one out of curiosity, you can pretend that you’re a samurai in training by listening to said youth audio tour as you walk through the exhibit.

The exhibit is premised on the concept of 文武両道 (bunburyoudou) meaning “literary and military arts,” or, more gracefully, “the pen and the sword.” People of the samurai class were expected to be well versed in not only martial arts, but also literature, painting, and other scholarly pursuits. The term bunburyoudou, however, is from a time before the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868) that the exhibit covers, being recorded in the Shiji nearly 2,000 years before the samurai age. The term has also survived well into the current day, being used often in schools. Indeed, when I stepped into the exhibition space and saw 文武両道 written on the wall (one of the few instances of Japanese text in the exhibit, not counting Japanese written on the displayed items themselves), I could hear the voice of the third vice principal I had worked with, as he would say it often in assemblies and staff meetings. This concept of bunburyoudou was probably in play at my first school as well, only I didn’t know it.

One of the things that always left me scratching my head was how students with failing grades were allowed to keep on participating in after-school clubs and sports. In my high school education, and in many other Americans’ high school experience, extracurricular activities in the States were seen as a privilege, not a right. If your grades fall, you get suspended from after-school activities until you get your grades back up. Granted, there seemed to be a bit of looking the other way when it came to a few members of my high school football team, but for the most part this pattern held. Students on sports teams were “scholar athletes.” Not just scholars, not just athletes, but both. In contrast, there were students at my first school in Japan who were constantly failing tests in all their classes, yet they were never pulled from their teams or clubs.

I mentioned this once to the owner of a restaurant I used to frequent. I explained the American system, and he answered, “But then don’t the students get upset, not being able to participate in their clubs?” I answered that some students did, but that at the same time, they knew from the beginning that keeping their grades up was a condition of their participation. He went on to say that the thinking in Japan was that if someone isn’t good at academics, if you took sports away from them, they’d have nothing, and that would do them more harm than good. I could see where he was coming from, but I wasn’t quite convinced. After all, students can end up spending 3 and a half hours after school in clubs. Would it really kill them to take half of that time for study?

It wasn’t until I was transferred to my second school that I started hearing the term bunburyoudou with some frequency. I heard the vice principal say it the most during a staff meeting at the beginning of my last academic year in Japan. He was comparing our school to a private school he’d visited recently. The students there usually got into some of the best universities in the country. But there was no “school life” in the sense that there was apparently very little student participation in clubs. This made him realize, he said, just how wonderful a bunburyoudou school is. Such a school teaches young people how to live, not just how to take tests.

I remember thinking, 「どうかな?」(“Is that so?”) Ahaha…of course, my cynical reaction was based on what I saw of Japanese education, which was mostly English education, which, last I saw it, was still almost entirely at the mercy of the university entrance exam. Also, I couldn’t help but think that it isn’t truly bunburyoudou, the pen and the swordif either side is allowed to remain at a level of undeniable incompetence. It was more like “the pen or the sword” for many students. That was my impression anyway.

Then again, perhaps it was like that for some people of the samurai class as well. There was one quote that really stood out to me at the DIA’s exhibit. It wasn’t something Musashi or Yagyu Jubei or some other celebrated samurai said. It was a quote from Tsubaki Chinzan, a samurai whose stipend was too small to live on, forcing him to take up painting to create a second source of income for himself. I don’t remember the exact words now, only the gist of it. Chinzan lamented the fact that he had no choice but to spend all his time painting pictures for others, people with the time and means to read classic poetry and commission artwork based on it, and otherwise lead culturally enriching lives. In his financial situation, apparently Chinzan didn’t have much variety to the arts he could spend time on.

All that said, I think balance is a good thing to aim for. In that sense, I like the philosophy of bunburyoudou.

Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, July 2013


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Unbeknownst to me, I started learning about feudal Japanese history, Japanese pronunciation, and Kyushu dialect when I was 11 or 12 years old, sitting in front of the tele and the Super Nintendo.

「話にもならんわ!」I couldn't understand it back then, but that's what Amakusa says when he wins a battle. We could translate it to "You're pathetic!" or something like that.

「話にもならんわ!」I couldn’t understand it back then, but that’s what Amakusa says when he wins a battle. We could translate it to “You’re pathetic!” or something like that, but he says it in Kyushu dialect (which is considered very rough in other parts of Japan) with a sentence-final “wa,” considered a marker of feminine speech outside of certain Tokyo dialects.

There was no one named “Tokugawa” in the game Samurai Shodown so some of Amakusa Shiro Tokisada’s lines left me a bit confused. That was about 20 years ago. But little by little, I came across more things in real life that I’d first seen in the game. I learned about the Tokugawa Shogunate, I learned about the problems with romanizing Japanese, and understood why the voice overs in the game pronounced this character’s name as “Shirou” even though the letters said “Shiro.” And most interestingly for me, I learned that Amakusa Shirou Tokisada, presented in the game as an evil sorcerer with poor taste in makeup, had actually been a boy in the 1600s who led a failed Christian uprising on Kyushu, the Shimabara Rebellion.

When I first heard about the “kakure kirishitan,” or “hidden Christians” in Japan, I was fascinated by how people so far from Christianity’s origins would end up such stout converts as to lay down their lives for their new-found beliefs. In contrast, I enjoyed going to Mass because the church and artwork inside were visually stunning; yet even so, I hadn’t gone all that often, and never did the catechism. Between this and my colorful, pixelated introduction to Christians in Japan, I was bound to end up in Amakusa some day.

As I wrote in the previous post, I went to Amakusa in July of 2013 thanks to the kindness of a fellow gym member who offered to drive there. She didn’t have much time so it was a day trip, which is a bit insane considering it’s a 4-hour drive from Fukuoka. All we did in Amakusa was see two famous churches, have lunch, and walk around a couple of touristy spots. As such, perhaps this post won’t be particularly edifying, but I still thought it was an interesting trip. For a brief, but deeper explanation of the history of this place, read this article: Amakusa and the Hidden Christians.

First, we went to Sakitsu Church (崎津教会, also 崎津天主堂 Sakitsu Tenshudou). It’s tucked away among sleepy, narrow streets.

We didn't have time to go in to Gallery Café Nazareth, but it was clear we were on the right track.

We didn’t have time to go in to Gallery Café Nazareth, but it was clear we were on the right track.

The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. With koi!

A representation of the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes near the church.

A beautiful Gothic church near the sea!

A beautiful Gothic church near the sea!

The plaque informs us that the first church built in this spot was built in 1883 (the 16th year of the Meiji Era), after the ban on Christianity was lifted. The current, Gothic building was erected in 1934 (the 9th year of the Showa Era) by Father Harubu (Havre?).

The plaque informs us that the first church built in this spot was built in 1883, after the ban on Christianity was lifted. The current, Gothic building was erected in 1934 by Father Harubu (Havre?).

Photography was not allowed inside, but I picked up the postcard set the church had for sale. (On an honor system at that. Put 500 yen in the box, take one of the sets laid out on the table.) Unfortunately, I can’t find said postcard set, though I know for sure I brought it with me, as I showed it to my mother. Hmm…well, in any case, here’s a Japanese site with pictures of the interior, as well as a more detailed history of the church, if you’re curious. The tatami mats are the only things that make it seem different from a Catholic church in the West.

The sea lies just a few steps from Sakitsu Church.

The sea lies just a few steps from Sakitsu Church.

Next, we headed to Ooe Church (大江教会, also 大江天主堂 Ooe Tenshudou). On the way, we saw a junior high school student riding a motorbike. That’s how you know this is the countryside (=inaka). There’s just no other way to get around, so even the lil’uns have to (or “get to”) drive.

Anyway, Ooe Church sits atop a hill. We actually saw a couple at this church who had also been at Sakitsu Church. Maybe they were looking for a place to hold their wedding?

Ooe ChurchOoe PlaquePhotography inside this church is also prohibited. I picked up a postcard set here as well, but alas. (One day, I’ll find those postcards and update this post. ^_^;) But again, you can see some interior photos at this Japanese site. It’s impossible to tell from those photos, however, that there’s a figure of a samurai up on the altar. Wearing his swords and everything.

Ooe's grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. It's tucked away on a lower part of the hill, at the side of the church.

Ooe’s grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. It’s tucked away on a lower part of the hill, at the side of the church.

While there, a blue dragonfly alighted on the stones of the grotto.

While there, a blue dragonfly alighted on the stones of the grotto. (You can see it more clearly by clicking the image for the full size.)

Before leaving, my friend insisted I take a picture in front of the church. It felt a little strange, ahaha....

Before leaving, my friend insisted I take a picture in front of the church. It felt a little strange, ahaha….

After seeing these two churches, we set out to look for lunch. We found a restaurant not too far from the foot of Ooe Church’s hill with a banner saying they had lunch specials, so we decided to go there. Amakusa is particularly known for seafood, so that’s what we had.

I don't remember what most of these fish were. But it was good and fresh!

I don’t remember what any of these fish were. But they were good and fresh!

After lunch we hit the road for Fukuoka. We happened to come across some octopuses being dried outside, which apparently is also something Amakusa is known for.

If I remember correctly, this is 干したこ (hoshi tako), meaning simply "dried squid."

If I remember correctly, this is 干したこ (hoshi tako), meaning simply “dried octopus.” You can eat it as a snack!

We went to a rest stop so that I could buy omiyage. I wasn’t planning on taking any of it home with me, rather it was for the school, as a “thank you” rather than as souvenirs. I was pretty amused by the chibi Amakusa Shirou Tokisada imprinted on various omiyage boxes.

Left: Amakusa Shiro as drawn in Samurai Shodown III. Right: Shiro-kun on a box of manju. I'm willing to bet both representations would be funny to the real Amakusa Shiro if he could see them.

Left: Amakusa Shirou as drawn in Samurai Shodown III. Right: Shirou-kun on a box of manju. I’m willing to bet both representations would be funny to the real Amakusa Shirou if he could see them.

On the way back to Fukuoka, we were unexpectedly stuck in traffic. As we crawled forward, I saw why: we were near a huge statue of Amakusa Shirou, and people were crowding into the small parking lot before it. Given that we were short on time I said I wouldn’t mind if we didn’t turn around to see it ourselves. Later, I found out that it was the Aino Amakusa Mura. Other monuments to Amakusa Shirou are in Shimabara, which we couldn’t also visit given the time constraint.

We had set out around 7 in the morning, and were back in Fukuoka at 7 in the evening. I said goodbye to the kind woman who’d taken the time to make a rushed trip far south, and went back to the mess of moving in my apartment. I made very few trips on JET, and this was the last.

おまけ! Bonus! ①

The first kanji I learned were the numbers from 1 to 13, thanks to Samurai Shodown.

As I played, I noticed that some of the symbols changed with each battle while the others stayed the same the whole time, so I figured the symbols that changed represented the number of the battle. Of course, it's fairly easy to confirm, since 1, 2, and 3 are 一、二、三. But still...who says video games don't teach you anything?!

As I played, I noticed that some of the symbols changed with each battle while the others stayed the same the whole time, so I figured the symbols that changed represented the number of the battle. Of course, it’s fairly easy to confirm, since 1, 2, and 3 are 一、二、三. But still…who says video games don’t teach you anything?!

The above screencap, as well as the one at the top of this post, was taken from AcidGlow’s Amakusa playthrough video. I found it really interesting to watch the playthrough now that I can read and understand all the untranslated Japanese elements! And I realized that Haohmaru’s stage is Ganryuu-jima, which I’ve also been to.


Samurai Shodown was apparently based on an 80s movie called Makai Tenshou, in which Amakusa Shirou is also the villain. Huh. I wonder if I can find this movie somewhere.


This was the church I’d sometimes go to in my neighborhood. I found it pretty interesting to hear Mass in Japanese. Since Christianity was first introduced to Japan by the Portuguese, many elements are in said language, and since Portuguese is very close to Spanish, I could figure things out. For example, “Mass” is ミサ (misa) in Japanese, and that’s also the Spanish word (and Portuguese word too, I assume) for it.



Kind Strangers


One of the silver linings in the tempestuous time that was the end of my JET days was the kindness of strangers. Well, not complete strangers, but people whom I only knew in passing, or just not well enough to think that they’d do for me what they did. People who had no reason to feel a need to do anything for me at all. It made me wonder about how people tend to take those they “know” for granted, and just how bad it is to make assumptions about people.

The Ladies from the Gym

I had joined Konami Sports Club in February of 2011 and continued going there 3 days before I returned to the States. The instructors were kind, there was minimal gawking, and I made a few “gym buddies,” so to speak.

One of the first was an older woman who would go to the same Body Pump class as I. We’d exchange small talk before and after class. One time she said to me, “Don’t worry about making conversation. Just come every week.” I figured that maybe, having someone in the class other than the instructor to feel responsible to, helped motivate her to go. For me, it had that effect. Not because I had a problem with going to the gym to work out, but because just getting to the gym, which was a 15-minute bike ride away, wasn’t easy in bad weather, and a huge hassle in the rainy season. But I started thinking, “Ya-ko drives there, so she’ll be there. I need to go too, even if it means taking a taxi.” I didn’t like taking taxis to the gym because it felt weird to not exercise in order to exercise, so at least I’d walk home.

Around June of 2013, Ya-ko’s husband developed a medical condition, and she became unable to go to the gym regularly. But she’d still show up to Body Pump on Thursday nights, until even that was too much time away from her husband, who needed her to take care of him. We were talking in the stretching area, saying our goodbyes, when she handed me a small packet. I honestly thought it was a rice cracker wrapped in tissue paper. I asked if I could open it there, and she said, “Maybe you shouldn’t.” I kept on thinking it was a rice cracker until I went to the locker room after saying goodbye again. Then it hit me: if she didn’t want me to open it in public, it could only be one thing. I lifted up the layers of tissue paper and sure enough, inside was a crisply folded 10,000 yen note. A woman I’d mostly just exchanged pleasantries with had given me about 100 USD! I ran about looking for her, but she was already gone. I at once felt bad for receiving the money, and was deeply moved by the gesture.

Another woman I’d met at Konami, Yo-ko, had spent a year or two as a volunteer in Zimbabwe through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). She still spoke a bit of English, so we’d converse in a mix of English and Japanese. When she found out I was leaving Japan, she asked me if there was anywhere I’d like to go, and that she would drive me there because she loved to go on long drives. I mentioned Mt. Aso and Amakusa, but that they were both too far away. I didn’t expect anything to come of it; the locations were both on Kyushu but very far south, and we didn’t have each other’s contact information. But then the last week of July, we ran into each other at the gym again, and Yo-ko said we could go to Amakusa on Sunday. It would have to be a day trip, but it could be done if we left early. So we finalized plans and went. She drove 8 hours in one day. It took four hours to get there, we spent about four hours in Amakusa (I’ll write about that later I wrote about it here), and then spent another four hours on the road back to Fukuoka.

We conversed about a lot of things on that long drive, from the auto industry in Detroit, to how she liked the combination of salty & sweet flavors in American breakfast dishes like pancakes soaked in syrup on the same plate as sausages. But what really stuck out to me was what she said about something she learned in Zimbabwe. To paraphrase, she said, “Everyone was kind to me. But even so, I know how lonely it can be to live in a foreign country. So I try to reach out to foreigners living in Japan, because I know what they’re going through.”

I almost cried.

I hadn’t told her I was lonely. I had said it to one person straight out, and to others indirectly. What I was going through personally was perhaps the reason I became unable to deal with the problems at work. I had no real support structure, while I was acting as the support structure for everyone with a problem, minor or major, in my jutaku. I was a rock teetering on the edge of a cliff, and no one noticed. Yet here was this woman who only knew me from a few conversations at the gym, who knew that being kind isn’t necessarily something you do because you see an immediate need to do it.

I send encouraging emails to my former English Club students every now and then, before tests or when I know they’re going to take on some big extracurricular role. Part of me feels incredibly cheesy saying stuff like “do your best!” and “don’t forget I’m cheering for you!” But I figure, at worst, I’ll sound corny; at best, it’ll help them get through a rough patch, and it forces me to embody the spirit of fighting on that I’m preaching to them, even when it’s really hard to do so. If nothing else, everyone likes knowing that someone’s thinking of them, right?

The New Neighbor

For three years, I lived across the hall from an incredibly kind teacher. He was the only Japanese resident in that jutaku who always greeted everybody. And when I say “greet,” I mean he actually spoke words and bowed, instead of grunting, mumbling, or giving a quick shake of the head that could be misinterpreted as a sneeze, like everyone else did. One time, he randomly gave me an umegaemochi as I was walking into the jutaku and he was driving out.

As you can only live in the teachers’ jutaku for 10 years, he had to move out at the end of the school year, in March, in what was my fourth year on JET. I was sad to see him go, and thought the apartment would remain empty for a while. Much to my surprise, someone took the room about a week later. It was a young teacher, fresh out of college. I actually ran into her parents as they were helping her move in. They introduced themselves to me and called their daughter over, concerned about having her live alone for the first time. My presence seemed to put them at ease, since I’d been there for years. I was amused by the thought of being a foreigner playing sempai to a Japanese teacher 8 years my junior, but I was grateful to the parents for treating me precisely like that. They didn’t see I was a foreigner and assume I knew nothing, they saw I spoke Japanese and had lived there for 4 years and, even if only symbolically, asked me to look after their daughter.

Around June, I learned that my successor was married to another ALT’s successor, and given the water problems my apartment had, I recommended that they move into the other ALT’s apartment. Unfortunately for me, that meant I had to completely empty my apartment. One of the harder things to dispose of was my little TV. Other ALT’s didn’t want it because they either didn’t watch Japanese TV, or didn’t want a TV that was only 19″. So I took a shot and offered it for free to my new neighbor. I knew that she still didn’t have a TV, and I explained to her that if she wanted it, she’d really help me out by taking it. I told her everything about it: it was made in 2010, I’d bought it new, it was a 19″ HD Toshiba Regza, the headphone jack was a bit messed up, but otherwise it worked perfectly. Knowing all that, she still slipped me a pretty envelope and apologized that it was “such a small sum” when I took the TV to her apartment. I told her she didn’t have to give me anything, she was helping me out, after all, and it was such a small TV. She insisted, so I thanked her and accepted the envelope. I thought it’d have 2,000, maybe 5,000 yen, tops. Instead, I was greeted by yet another crisp 10,000 yen note. Considering that was one fourth the price of what it had cost three years prior, I thought it was very generous. I was quite blown away.

I made sure she knew who the new ALTs moving in would be, who lived nearby and who worked at her school, to try to repay her kindness that way. I really wasn’t expecting anything for the TV, and I didn’t want to throw it in the trash, the way I had to do with an incredible amount of the things I’d amassed in 4 years’ time.

Everyone Who Came to The Mayhem

“The Mayhem” is what I call my last days in Fukuoka. Even though I had to turn over the apartment that week, I still had a lot of stuff in the room.

Wednesday, August 7th, two days before I had to vacate the apartment.

Wednesday, August 7th, two days before I had to vacate the apartment. I’d sold the vanity, thrown away the bed & mattress, and was sleeping on a futon I intended to roll up and throw away in a large burnable trash bag on the morning of my departure. I looked at the mess and in my stress-induced lunacy had to laugh and take a picture.

That week, the building manager had decided to get stupid with me. It’s a long story and I don’t want to ruin the vibe of this post, so suffice it to say that I was massively short on time. Of course, I was partly to blame for not getting rid of things sooner as well, but it didn’t have to play out as horribly as it did.

Anyway, about three hours before the building manager was supposed to come and inspect the room, I called the school and told the secretary, “there’s no way I’m gonna make it in time.” To my surprise, she said she’d come and try to help. She dropped what she was doing at school and went to help me put stuff in the trash! The school secretary whom I’d only known for a few months, and had only spoken to for discussing paperwork and taxes. She even gave me a small bag of cookies, and thanked me for always giving the office their own box of omiyage. I apologized for not traveling often like other ALTs (thus making omiyage from me very rare), and for not getting the apartment ready in time.

Another person whom I recruited to help with the Mayhem was a new ALT who had just moved in about a week prior, to the apartment above mine. I was going to give her some of my stuff the day I left, and had gone to leave it in a bag on her door. When I finished sweeping my apartment and went up to leave the broom by her door, I saw that the bag was gone. So I rang the doorbell and was surprised to find she’d come home while I was running around like a headless chicken. She offered to help and I accepted quickly. At least, I had taken her to an Indian restaurant the night she came. Otherwise, what a terrible welcome to the neighborhood!

Then there was the metal scrap collector I’d called on short notice. Granted, I was paying him to take away some of the wooden furniture no one wanted, but then he took it upon himself to seek out metal objects I hadn’t thought of. I told him, “if it’s still in here, it has to go.” And that was all I needed to say for him to set to work.

Lastly, there’s three people who were certainly not strangers. Still, I thought they went above and beyond for me that last stressful Friday in Fukuoka.

One was a (then) first year ALT, who had offered to let me stay in her apartment after I had turned over mine. Her husband and in-laws were also visiting at the time, so I decided to ask my co-ALT if I could stay at his place instead. Still, she had been willing to take me in, even with her house full as it was. And when I went up to give her some leftover cleaning supplies, and broke down from the stress and stupidity of the day, she gave me a hug and let me cry on her.

Another was a former ALT who had stayed in Japan after her JET tenure. In my last week, she had been helping me take boxes to the post office, she took me to sell my manga at a manga buy-back place, and when I called asking for help on the last day, she told me she was meeting someone for lunch, but would go to my place immediately after that. She helped sort stuff and throw it away, and even vacuumed while I was talking to the building manager. She and her boyfriend drove me to the post office in downtown Fukuoka City at 10 o’clock at night to mail one last box of stuff. Without her, a much greater fraction of my Fukuoka life would’ve ended up in the trash, and I would have felt pretty abandoned.

Lastly, there was my former co-ALT. He let me stay in his apartment after I turned over mine, even cooked me dinner at midnight after he found out all I’d eaten all day was a stale melon pan and a jug of green tea. He told me I was working too hard to get the apartment clean, and while I wanted to leave the place spotless, I figured it was better to listen to him. When I had returned from the night run to the post office, he made me fajitas and let me watch Star Trek: The Next Generation on his Apple TV. Even as he himself had to get ready for a trip to China.

The Mayhem was one of the most stressful days of my time in Fukuoka, and the people who came through for me were people I either didn’t know very well, or didn’t expect would end up helping as much as they did. It was a bittersweet experience. I suppose it’s like Björk says: “Maybe not from the sources you have poured yours / Maybe not from the directions you are staring at.”

Lessons in the School of Rock


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There’s an Oasis song that says “don’t put your life in the hands / of a rock and roll band.” Seems like sound advice, but I wonder if taking it means you’re still putting your life in a band’s hands.

In December of 2012, when I was struggling to decide whether to stay on JET or not, one of the things that crossed my mind was “if I leave, I might not be able to go to another GACKT concert.” Seriously. If, in that cold and lonely December, I had hit for premium tickets (first 5 rows) in the fan club lottery for the 2013 Best of the Best tour, there’s a chance that I would have found the strength to grit my teeth through everything that was annoying me. Instead, a couple days before leaving to spend winter break in the States, I called the fan club line and got a nice recorded message telling me in keigo that I had struck out. For the first time in my 3 years in the club. After being in the seventh row at the Osaka Gakuensai! I couldn’t believe it and called the automated line again, hoping I’d misunderstood. But I hadn’t. And I thought, “On top of everything that’s gone wrong this past year I can’t even see GACKT?!” Then I cried in my kotatsu.

I remembered Oasis’ song, and felt like no matter what I chose, I was putting my life in the hands of a rock band. If I stayed it would be to continue going to GACKT shows, even if I ended up all the way in the back of the hall. If I left it would be to listen to Oasis’ advice. Granted, I don’t think this is what Noel Gallagher had in mind when he penned the lyrics to “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”

Actually reading these...that's my homework now. Woo-hoo!

My small collection of 2009-2013 Fool’s Mate, Arena 37℃Out of Music, and the official fan club magazine, GACKT Globals. For the most part, I haven’t actually read these. Yet.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration; GACKT was only a part of my decision making process, but he has played a huge role in my life for the past 12 years. I don’t think I would have studied Japanese as enthusiastically and naturally if I hadn’t fallen in love with his music, then with him overall. On top of being a singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist, I think he’s pretty smart. When I saw this interview that came included in 2004’s PlayStation 2 game Bujingai: The Forsaken City (whose main character was modeled after and voiced by GACKT) I knew I wanted to listen to more of what this man had to say.

G in Bujingai Interview

Right after this, he says something that the English subtitles leave out. If I heard him correctly, he says, “Hm, well, I’ve always thought of myself as being slow on the uptake.”

My body used to be really weak, and I was sick of using that as an excuse in my life, so I started practicing to conquer my own weaknesses. I guess a lot of mothers don’t want their kids fighting with each other, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If you fight someone physically, your injuries will heal eventually. But a lot of kids don’t do that these days. They get into fights with their hearts, you know? They hurt each other emotionally, and those wounds are a lot harder to heal. That’s how bullying works, and I think the reason why suicide rates are going up is because people are hurting others, and people are letting people hurt them emotionally.

You can see this interview from the beginning here, but what I quoted comes at the beginning of part 2. Interestingly, the subtitles also leave out that GACKT says specifically that martial arts can be used to overcome Asians’ disadvantage of having small bodies relative to white people and black people. (Something I didn’t catch when I first saw this interview 10 years ago.)

Now, I don’t agree with GACKT on everything. I sort of put him on a pedestal so when he does or says annoying things, he really ticks me off and I have the sort of one-sided lovers’ spat that only a truly devoted fan can have. Punning on 男尊女卑 (“dansonjohi,” literally meaning something like “respect men, revile women”) to come up with 男尊女秘 (pronounced the same way, but meaning something like “respect men, keep [this show] a secret from women,” maybe) for a men’s-only concert? Really? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a men’s-only concert, but it seems like a strange name to pick for the show, especially when the overwhelming majority of your fanbase consists of women. But, for the most part, I’ve found a lot of what GACKT says to be very logical and useful.

As I complete my self-assigned homework of studying Japanese for 4 hours a day (2 hours with textbooks and 2 hours with anything else) I’m coming across a lot of GACKT’s words, wise and otherwise. Today I read the interview from Rock and Read #44 (November 2012). I plan on translating all of the interview for practice, but there was one part in particular that really stuck out to me, so I’d like to share it here, along with a related anecdote. [UPDATE: You can now read the whole interview translation here.]

At this point in the interview, GACKT has been talking about bullying. The interviewer, Ayano NISHIMURA, then asks what makes him feel alive and he answers seeing and feeling people’s happiness. The interview continues:

So, turning other people’s happiness into your own strength. Through your music, movies, and plays, you call for people to stop fighting with each other, and to hold friends dear. Why did that become a theme in your work?
Hm, probably because when I took a look back at myself, I realized that I hadn’t produced anything.

You hadn’t produced anything?
Through fighting. It resulted in nothing. The fights I myself started, the fights I was involved in, they accomplished nothing. I really think so. When I was a student, the discrimination against zainichi* children was awful. I was in that group, too. I’m not zainichi, but I got along really well with the zainichi children. So, I stood right between the Japanese and the zainichi. You could say I understood where both sides were coming from. Neither side was wrong in what they were saying; they’d get so heated that you couldn’t even tell who had started it, and I was caught between the two, being on good terms with both. So, sometimes there would be these really huge arguments, and I’d be the only one who didn’t get called out to join. Because I couldn’t join either side. They wouldn’t let me know what was going on because they knew that I’d end up mediating. I wondered, why does such a meaningless thing have to happen, why does it happen over and over again? It was a huge dilemma. I thought, if Japanese and Korean people sat down to talk to each other one-on-one, they’d both realize what a great person the other is. But they never understood each other. I thought, what’s up with that?

It’s about the pride between countries, right? Recently, I interviewed a certain zainichi actor. He’s 33 years old now. He said that from the time he was very little, he was always taught that he couldn’t lose to Japanese people. When he started to wonder why that was, he asked his parents, “Is it okay if I lose to Korean people?” They couldn’t answer him, so his viewpoint changed to “what a stupid way of thinking.” But I think it’s about how you take it. In that case, it could go either way. I think that to treasure one’s country and to want to protect its culture and way of thinking, are very precious things. But it’s sad when people hurt each other.

*”Zainichi” literally means “being in Japan” but it’s most often used to refer to people of Korean descent residing in Japan.

The story the interviewer shared about the Korean actor and what his parents told him reminded me of something that happened at one of YELLOW FRIED CHICKENz’s concerts. YFC was a band that GACKT formed, active 2010-2012. Its first live shows were men’s-only, with women gradually allowed to participate. But the rough nature of having started as a men’s-only show remained. GACKT would address the audience in really rough Japanese, included a call and response bit that consisted entirely of the word “F***,” and the audience was constantly instructed to “go wild.” I was more than happy to oblige, and I would scream out the band members’ names between songs louder and for longer than anyone else. But at the beginning of one concert, this happened, and I was so annoyed by it I felt compelled to write about it in my journal in the fan club community:

DEARS Diary 2011.10.11The English sounds really simple because I would write it translating from what I'd written in Japanese.

The English sounds really simple because I would write it translating from what I’d written in Japanese.

Well, I was gentle in the translation. The word the woman used, 「気持ち悪い」, doesn’t mean just “bad,” but literally, something that makes you feel bad, e.g. something disgusting. So there I was, enjoying the show and showing the band some love, feeling like I was one with all the fellow fans, when this woman goes and ruins the moment by turning it into a competition. Implying that somehow I shouldn’t be enjoying the show as much as a Japanese person. I, who had been walking the path of GACKT fandom for 9 years at that point, who was a card-carrying member of the official fan club, was screaming so loud it somehow challenged this woman’s Japanese-ness. What?

The comment seemed even sillier considering that in their 2011 incarnation YFC had two vocalists, GACKT and Jon Underdown, an American musician active in Japan. It reminded me of the first time I went to the Catholic church in my neighborhood, and a parishioner said, “Oh, a foreigner.” There was no ill-will in the observation, so paired with the location I was just thoroughly amused. Had I known more Japanese at the time, and had the guts to make saucy comments in church, I might have given voice to my internal reaction: “Who, me, or the man on the cross?”

Well, to take another lesson from Oasis, I’ll end on a positive note. Because I don’t want to always be looking back in anger. The reason I didn’t get in touch with friends in Detroit in my first few months back was that I didn’t want to talk about Japan, and I figured they would ask. I was too mad at it, but I knew that I needed time and space to let the good things about the country and my JET experience resurface in my mind.

This comment from another fan club member (one whom I knew in person from the same club-within-the-club) made me feel better that day.


“I was glad to meet you for the first time in a while! ♪ Nationality doesn’t matter!! That is to say, there’s no reason why it would. What’s important is KiAi ♡”

気愛 KiAi = 気合い Kiai + 愛 ai. Putting love into your fighting spirit. Or fighting on because you love something. I think writing the word this way isn’t common outside the GACKT community, but I really like it.

気愛!! ^o^

People who don't follow GACKT often don't know that Screencapped from the greatest concert DVD ever, Requiem et Reminiscene II Final. ♡

People who don’t follow GACKT often don’t know that underneath the stoicism and visual kei garb, there’s this guy who is just so gosh-darned adorkable you could die. ♡ Screencapped from the greatest concert DVD ever, Requiem et Reminiscence II Final.

Bachata en Fukuoka Updated Translation


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I’ve created a new blog to round up all the fan translations I’ve done over the years. In doing so, I’d be remiss not to give Juan Luis Guerra’s love song to Fukuoka a coat of fresh lyrical paint. You’ll find the tweaked Japanese & English translations here: Bachata en Fukuoka.

今まで愛好家として翻訳してきた曲などを新しいブログでかき集めていきます。フアン・ルイス・ゲラの福岡へのラブソングももちろん、バージョンアップしました。書き直しの和訳・英訳をこちらからご覧ください: Bachata en Fukuoka.

The Tip of the Nose-berg


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This is a very long post. To summarize for the TL;DR crowd, what I’m getting at is that the stereotype of “Gaijin-san” doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that there is a host of racial problems in Japan and that’s part of what makes Gaijin-san so aggravating.

Recently I found out about All Nippon Airways’ unfortunate decision to air an ad featuring a man in Japan’s ubiquitous “Gaijin-san” costume: a large nose and a blond wig. Honestly it left me stupefied because 1. the nose used was extremely large even by Gaijin-san costume standards, and 2. I had come to believe that the Gaijin-san costume was fading out of use. I remember seeing it in the variety shop InCube, being sold with Halloween costumes in 2009, but never again after that year in that store. I’d always check for it because the first time I saw it I was blown away. Can you imagine a “Mr. Black Guy” mask being sold in the U.S. in the year 2009 with no repercussions?

The "American" and "Indian" patrons of an "International Sushi Shop"

The first time I saw the Gaijin-san costume: August 2009, on some sort of variety show. The premise here was that people from different countries were eating at an international sushi restaurant. Here are the “American” and “Indian” patrons, both with fake noses. To my disappointment, neither a samurai, ninja, sumo wrestler, nor geisha showed up to represent Japan. The inclusion of a Japanese stereotype would’ve at least opened the door for the interpretation that the show made fun of everyone. And wouldn’t it have been funnier if the sushi chef was preparing the fish with a katana?

As I spent more time in Japan, I came to find the Gaijin-san costume increasingly offensive. It popped up everywhere, from TV shows to skits at school, and no one ever questioned it. I don’t think it would bother me as much if the extent of Japan’s stereotyping went no further than that, or if Japanese people would at least acknowledge that yes this is a stereotype, or if all the stereotyping did was make Japanese people think that all white people have humongous schnozes and hair in a Barbie shade of blond. But none of these scenarios is the case. Gaijin-san’s nose is just the tip of the iceberg.

In a country with so few foreigners, why would you need a phone to have

In a country with so few foreigners, why would you need a phone to have emoji of a white man (the only one shown in profile to showcase his splendid proboscis), a thinly mustachio-ed slit eyed Chinese man, and a turbaned Indian? What did the text message say, “Guess what I just saw on the train?” And where’s the stoic karate master or the sumo wrestler? If Capcom could do it for Street Fighter on the Super Nintendo, I’m sure SoftBank and Panasonic could’ve done it on this phone. At least newer phones seem to have the emoji of the white guy from the front rather than from the side; this is the phone I got in 2009 and had all 4 years in Japan.

On the Lack of Intent, Criminal or Otherwise

One of the most common ways Japanese and non-Japanese alike justify things like Gaijin-san is by saying “No one is being hurt by this,” and “It’s just a joke.” True, between seeing someone put on a toy prosthesis and display their ignorance, and being followed around in the mall by clerks because I’m Hispanic, I’ll take Gaijin-san. The problem with this idea is that it only takes into account immediate, direct harm. But can anyone say with certainty that making a toy out of an entire group of people doesn’t harm the real human beings of that group indirectly? When students don’t take ALTs seriously, when schools don’t take ALTs seriously, can we say with certainty that constantly presenting foreigners as punchlines isn’t reinforcing this type of behavior? How much English and cultural awareness can students get from a person whom they may subconsciously view as little more than an entertaining distraction, a break from the academic rigors of their real classes? When Japanese people see a gag more often than an actual foreigner, is it surprising when they do things like stare, or say rude things in Japanese assuming the foreigner won’t understand? What’s that attitude going to do to the country’s bottom line?

Another common excuse is “Japanese don’t mean to be racist.” For the most part, I think that’s true. But saying “Japanese don’t mean to be racist,” means that they are indeed being racist, just not willfully. And if that’s the case, I don’t think that the conclusion “and therefore people shouldn’t speak up about things that are bothering a whole lot of them” follows logically from “Japanese don’t mean to be racist.” I think students donning Gaijin-san costumes, or the ANA commercial, are chances for real-world dialogue and learning that should not be missed because of the idea that lack of intent justifies slighting people.

Disclaimer: Neither (clockwise from top right) Kim Soo Hyun, Takumi, nor GACKT had anything to do with the making of this illustration.

Disclaimer: Neither (clockwise from top right) Kim Soo Hyun, Takumi, nor GACKT had anything to do with the making of this illustration.

The above image is based on a student’s English Passport (a name card which students could either attach purikura of themselves to or draw themselves on) that I saw in my first or second year on JET. I had directed the students to draw an arrow pointing to themselves if they used a photo that had their friends in it, so that I could learn who was who faster. To my surprise one girl labelled not only herself, but also the three other people in the photo, writing in “me,” “friend,” “friend,” and “Korean.”

I’m sure the girl who did this had no malicious intent. I’m sure she didn’t get the implication of not labeling the third person as “friend” like the rest. It may well be that the student who did this loves Korean pop culture, and feels like being in a photo with a real Korean person gives her some street cred or cool factor, and that’s why she wanted to let it be known that the person was Korean. But doesn’t that turn the person into a sort of status symbol, like wearing a sweater whose main feature is the massive logo “Marithé + François Girbaud” in huge letters across the torso? And is it not worthwhile to address this possibility with the student, regardless of how much she didn’t intend to offend anyone?

If I get drunk, crash my car into a pedestrian and kill them, I’ll still get charged with a crime, right? The charge might be manslaughter rather than murder, but no one will say, “She didn’t mean to kill that pedestrian, so let’s just leave that corpse in the street and act like it’s not there.” And if some guy asks me to deliver a package somewhere, but I don’t ask what’s in it, when the police catch me with a box full of meth, “I didn’t know what was in the package” will not be an excuse. Is it in Japan’s best interests to insist that their box is empty and completely ignore people who tell them there’s some racism in there? Especially when it will be hosting an international event like the Olympics in a few years?

If Japan chose to shut itself off from the world completely, none of this would matter. It’d be their decision to make. In their isolation they’d be totally free to think whatever they wanted to about anyone. But as long as Japan wants to buy products from abroad and sell its products abroad, it doesn’t seem wise to play the “we didn’t know” card rather than the “we didn’t know, thanks for telling us, can you explain it further so that we may understand?” card. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with true cultural awareness and understanding springing up from a need to protect one’s pocketbook. It’s not ideal, but it seems more realistic. It’s a fairly easy concept to understand, after all: “Anger these people, and they won’t give us their money.” I don’t for a second believe that a lot of the progress Hispanics have made in the U.S. wasn’t due to the economic and political power that Hispanics came to wield as an ever-growing group.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

It was almost painfully predictable what would happen if I tried to bring up the subject of discrimination against foreigners in Japan to a Japanese person: “But when I lived in X country the people there treated me like I was different and asked me rude things.” “Oh, but America had slavery, didn’t it?”

These things are logical fallacies. Since when does one fact cancel out another fact just because it’s a fact too? Both are true and neither can make the other go away, nor does either justify the other.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany's in 2013. I couldn't believe the character of Mr. Yunioshi.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 2013. I couldn’t believe the character of Mr. Yunioshi. I’m sure that to audiences in 1961 it was no big deal, but live and learn eh? No need to make the same mistakes.

If it’s okay for Japanese to strap noses to their face and put on blond wigs to become Gaijin-san because white people have done black face and yellow face, and otherwise discriminated against people of color, when will it stop? I mean, a character as blatant as Mr. Yunioshi would probably not make it into an American movie these days. Yes, Asian characters are often portrayed by Asian actors of a different ethnicity (e.g. Japanese-American soldier Jim Morita played by Kenneth Choi, who is of Korean descent, in Captain America: The First Avenger) but that’s a step up from casting white people in those roles. So for how long do people have a right to stick it to the white man when the white man’s ability to stick it to minorities (at least in media depictions) has been curtailed? For as long as there was slavery? For as long as Breakfast at Tiffany’s has existed? For as long as white people command vast amounts of political and economic power? And if so, is that the best we can do, as people of color? Poke fun at how big The Man’s nose is?

Gaijin-san doesn’t do anything to rectify these wrongs, it just creates more problems. And not only for white people in Japan, but for non-white foreigners there too.

Half the World Doesn’t Exist

I have a problem with how differences are emphasized in Japan to the point of completely ignoring similarities. There’s a hilarious but sad example that illustrates this all too well in the book Hi! My Name is Loco and I Am a Racist. That same conversation is also up on author Baye McNeil’s blog (this post).

My last October as an ALT I whipped up what I thought was a witty lesson introducing Halloween, its precursor Samhain, and the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I made sure to include the vocabulary words “ancestor” (which the students had just had in their Vocabulary book as well), “grave,” “altar,” “offering,” and “spirit” on the handout with Japanese translations, as well as show many pictures of Day of the Dead festivities, which center on cleaning ancestors’ graves and making food & drink offerings to them at altars. Before moving on to the last part of the lesson, a Venn diagram, I asked the students, “Samhain and Dia de los Muertos especially are both very similar to a Japanese holiday. Can you think of which one?” When no one would answer I told them to read over the passage about Dia de los Muertos again, and to look at the Japanese in the vocabulary list again. Out of 10 homerooms of 40 students each, only in one homeroom was there a single student who immediately saw the similarity between these foreign holidays and the Japanese festival Obon, during which cleaning the family grave and making offerings at altars is also very important. In other homerooms, the first answer shouted out was Oshougatsu (New Year’s), and there was even at least one spirited yell of “Taiiku no Hi!” (Health and Sports Day, which is in October).

An "ofrenda," or altar for the dead, and a butsudan, or Buddhist altar, with Obon offerings. The tiers, the lights, the photo and/or plaque for the deceased...yeah, not similar at all. (I found the ofrenda photo on several blogs saying it was from Wikipedia but couldn't find it there. The butsudan comes from Hasegawa Butsudan, a company that sells altars & altar accessories.

An “ofrenda,” or altar for the dead, and a butsudan, or Buddhist altar, with Obon offerings. The tiers, the lights, the flowers, the food offerings, the photo and/or plaque for the deceased…why did I ever think the similarity was obvious?
(I found the ofrenda photo on several blogs saying it was from Wikipedia but couldn’t find it there. The butsudan comes from Hasegawa Butsudan, a company that sells altars & altar accessories.)

I was blown away by how hard it was for the students to make the connection between Obon and Dia de los Muertos. By the fourth or fifth time I’d given the lesson, I was ending it, perhaps too gleefully given some of the weird looks I got, with the revelation “Every culture has a death festival! EVERYBODY DIES!!!”

Some of the teachers blamed the students’ inability to make the connection on their being young and therefore not familiar with traditional Japanese culture. But I find it very hard to believe that they didn’t know the very basics of Obon. Are 399 of the students in that grade in families with zero filial piety? To me a much more likely explanation is that students have never been asked to find similarities before, so when they get asked that simple question their brain crashes. What students are constantly asked, at least in their 3 years of high school, is what are the differences between Japanese and Westerners. How and why are students who by and large have never been to the West expected to answer such a question?

But getting to a story that more directly illustrates the problems that the Gaijin-san costume causes:

The high school English Communication I textbook ELEMENT for the current academic year is generally pretty good. I read the entire book before classes started and of its ten chapters I only had a problem with one: Chapter 3, “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently.” I figured I was in store for sweeping generalizations, and indeed I was. I don’t remember many details now, only that the bulk of the chapter cited a study whose subjects were Chinese and American children. So why wasn’t the title “How Chinese Children and American Children Think Differently?”

Anyway, the school I was at sometimes had to host demonstration English classes. Teachers from other schools as well as people from the Board of Education and college professors would come to sit in on and evaluate the new English-only English classes. One of these demos used the chapter mentioned above. So the teacher giving the class opened the lesson with the question, “What do you think are some of the differences between Japanese and Westerners?” A student was called on, and after hesitating a while, he offered a wonderful answer: “I don’t know.”

I was so glad in that instant. “I don’t know” is a perfect answer when you really don’t know and are being set up to display a bad kind of ignorance, which is ignorance masquerading as knowledge. But the student was prodded for an answer. And what he came up with was: “Westerner’s eye color is different.”

Hopefully this wasn't the face I was making on the outside, but I was certainly thinking "for real now?" when I heard the teacher say that yes, Westerner's eye color is different.

マジで? This is the Westerner who works in your school, whom you’ve been seeing for several months, and what you come up with is “Westerner’s eye color is different”? And the teacher just co-signs on that? While I’m in the room?

The episode made me realize the monumental proportions of the stereotypes and ignorance that I, as an ALT there for cultural exchange as well as English education, had to fight. I was disappointed by the student’s answer but at the same time I was fully aware that he was only regurgitating what his culture had fed him.

Brown eyes are the most common in the world. Even if we assume that “Westerner” excludes Mexico, Central America, and South America, there are brown-eyed Europeans. Only you’d never know that when you’re constantly presented with the caricature Gaijin-san that tells you Westerner = Caucasian = blond & blue-eyed.

Every now and then, you’ll see representations of Westerners that aren’t white. Unfortunately, many of those tend to be mere stereotypes as well.

Coke with a music downloads promotion (I think) in 2009.

Coke with a music downloads promotion (I think) in 2009.

From the same bottle. Somehow I doubt the American Coca-Cola would've put something like this on their products Stateside.

From the same bottle. Somehow I doubt the American Coca-Cola would’ve put something like this on their products Stateside.

I Ain’t Been Dropping No Eaves, Sir, Honest!

Being a foreigner who can understand Japanese can feel like being an eavesdropper, only it’s not hard to catch what people are saying because they say it right in your face.

My first year on JET, I pretty much kept to myself. Being dark-haired, dark-eyed, and silent kept me safe from prying eyes. I didn’t feel at all the sort of discomfort I’d end up feeling in my second through fourth years, when I would more frequently be around other foreigners in public.

One time I was going home from Japanese class with 3 other ALTs who lived in the same jutaku. One was a Japanese-American man, another was a white American woman, and the other was a white New Zealand woman. We were talking, not too loud but louder than everybody else, and I noticed an older Japanese man staring daggers at us from the priority seats. I lowered my voice hoping the others would follow, but it didn’t have much effect.

We got to our station, but it was the old man’s station too. He was on the escalator, I directly behind him, followed by the guy and the 2 girls, who were still talking. As we rode up slowly the old man huffed and puffed, till he could take it no longer. He leaned forward a bit to speak over me and address the guy behind me, saying 「女はどこでもうるさいね。」(=”Women everywhere are noisy, huh?”)

I was flabbergasted. The statement was sexist. But perhaps more than that, what punched me in the gut with bittersweet irony was that the old man skipped over the foreigner who understood what he said perfectly, to say it to the foreigner of Japanese descent who probably didn’t catch half of it! Without thinking I blurted out at the man in the overly textbook-y Japanese I had in my first year, 「必ずしも外国人の女性は日本語を話せないわけじゃないです。」(“It’s not always the case that foreign women can’t speak Japanese.”) The man was taken aback, asked me if I spoke Japanese (D’UH what did I just say to you?!), and grumbled on his way once the escalator reached the top.

The ANA commercial is like this old man on a much wider scale, and far less excusable. Japanese is a language largely written and spoken on the assumption that the people who will read it and hear it are Japanese only. Even if it’s true that there are few non-Japanese who have a solid command of the Japanese language, the news media exists. Stuff gets translated and spreads around on the internet. No company, no public figure, should assume that what they say won’t go all the way round the world and sneak up behind them to bite them in the tush. Even private citizens have to be careful what they post online, lest they lose a job because of a raunchy Facebook photo.

On a lighter note, this reminds me of Tiziano Ferro, an Italian singer who was also popular in Latin America. In 2006 he went on an Italian talk show and said that one of the things that made touring abroad hard was having to compliment each place he was in. Among other insulting remarks he said that Mexican women all have mustaches. To his surprise the Latin American media got wind of it and his popularity in Mexico plummeted.

But Even When People KNOW You Speak Japanese

I had this hilarious exchange in Japanese with some sweet English club girls in July of 2013:

Student A: It’s said that foreigners who speak Japanese start to have the facial features of Japanese.
Me: Really?
Student A: Yeah, the ones who live here.
Me: Hmm.
Student A: (Turning to speak to Student B) Once you get used to looking at them [=foreigners], you lose that sense that something’s off [=違和感], don’t you?
Me: The sense that something’s off…? *Bursts out laughing*
Student B: Ah! No no no…
Student A: Sorry…
Me: *Still laughing*

The conversation had started off with something I hadn’t exactly heard before but was no stranger to: the idea that there’s some physical component to being able to speak a language other than the movements of one’s mouth and tongue, such as the belief that only those with Japanese blood can truly speak Japanese. I suppose it’s possible that speaking another language could change the appearance of one’s face if a radically different set of muscles is being put into motion, though I have no science to back this up. They say long-married couples end up looking like each other, so maybe there’s something to this foreigners-turning-Japanese thing. In any case, the idea struck me as odd, but no biggie. It was the 違和感 (“iwakan,” a feeling that something is a bit off) comment that really surprised me. Even though Student A wasn’t directly addressing me anymore, without thinking, I just said, “Iwakan?” Student B seemed to catch on immediately that I was saying, by simply repeating that word, “There was a time when you looked at another human being and felt like their face was a mistake?”

Granted, Student A didn’t seem like she realized she’d committed a faux pas until Student B started apologizing on her behalf. Student A really is a very good-natured individual so I’m sure she didn’t think she was being rude. But it still felt like maybe she’d forgotten, for a brief second, that I could understand what she said and had even been conversing with her in Japanese just seconds before. Or maybe she forgot that I was a foreigner because I was speaking in Japanese!

Investing in Japan

When I was volunteering in City Year, I was heavily invested in the outcome of my work. Not just because I take pride in anything that’s gonna have my name on it, but also because I was a resident of the City of Detroit, working with the youth of the City of Detroit. Indeed, one of the things that had made me want to find a way to help my city was the many destructive things I’d see kids doing in the street. Ripping branches off trees for no reason, throwing rocks at birds trying to kill them for the fun of it, joining gangs and walking down the street talking about how they “run this” while probably not having the faintest idea of what real power looks like, and the fact that real power is not at all inconvenienced by people with no power killing each other off with drugs and violence.

When my City Year team was at a school in Southwest Detroit, AKA Mexicantown, it was easy to reach out to the students and have them respond to me. I was Hispanic like them, I was an immigrant like them, I had come to this country not knowing a lick of English like them. In my second year my team was at a K-8 school on Detroit’s primarily black east side. But I could still tell them, and indeed I did, I care about you because you live where I live. This is my city too. Your future is my future. There are people who want us to fail, because we’re from Detroit, or because we’re minorities. Are you gonna play into their hands? Even the boys most hell-bent on being thugs had to stop and think for a minute.

In Japan I likewise did the best I could as an ALT out of personal pride, but also out of the sincere belief that I could reach the students based on our mutual experience of learning English as a second language. I’d say to them, I had to learn English like you’re doing now, I made many mistakes in public but it’s okay, the U.S. is a nation of immigrants and we’re speaking English with different accents but we can still understand each other.

Four years and about 3,000 students later, I feel like this had no effect on the majority of the students I had in Japan. Perhaps the problem was that no matter what, the students had been conditioned to see foreigners as different from them. Idealistically I could have said that in a global world their future is my future even if we’re thousands of miles apart. But that’s much more abstract, and it’s a little bit harder to be personally invested in reaching people who are heavily invested in keeping you at arm’s length.

In Conclusion

This has been a very long, semi-stream-of-consciousness post. A lot of these things are things I’d been thinking about for years and just couldn’t find a way to put them together and express them. The ANA commercial served as a trigger to get all these thoughts out of my head. All of this, all these 4000+ words of thoughts, are the context in which I take Gaijin-san as offensive. ANA isn’t the first nor will it be the last to use Gaijin-san, though I hope we’re nearing the end of it. The United States still has a LOT of racial problems but I think it’s something to at least have moved away from stereotypes like Sambo and Mr. Yunioshi. I’m also of the mind that humanity isn’t GOING to hell in a hand basket, it’s been trying to LEAVE hell by way of a slippery ladder that we take two steps back on after going one forward. Humans seem naturally inclined to segregate themselves, stereotype, and give preferential treatment to “their own.” Maybe this will never stop. But I think it’s worth it to try, and we can’t try if we don’t acknowledge that it’s even going on.

Continue? 10, 9, 8…



It’s the time of year when JETs have to decide whether to extend their contracts or not. I think most ALTs will have or did have a workshop about how to go about making this decision, but given my unfortunately rough experience with this question, I figured I’d say some quick things about it.

The Deadline is The Deadline
I felt pressured and rushed to make a decision, and my papers were getting filed a full month ahead of the February deadline. I was dazed and confused!

Maybe it’s more convenient for contracting organizations to know in January how many people they’re going to send home and how many replacements to bring in, but if it were absolutely crucial to have those figures in January, the deadline for ALTs to submit their papers would be in January. As the deadline is February, if you need all that time to think, take it. Please don’t give in!

You’re Making A List and Checking It Twice
One helpful piece of advice I heard at an ALT workshop was to make a list of the pro’s and con’s of staying on JET and the pro’s and con’s of leaving, then assigning a “weight” of importance to each item on the list. However, I do disagree with the oft repeated idea that it’s wrong to assign a lot of weight to money. Only people who grew up in affluence can act like money doesn’t matter! Too rich for my blood on that one.

That said, I think that if money is a reason to stay, you should have a clear financial goal in mind and work toward it.  Personally, given the extremely low cost of living that I enjoyed in my particular situation, I was able to pay off a $17,000 medical debt in two years, then save to take my mother and I to Spain. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with “I need the money for x” or “I want the money for y” being reasons to stay in any job if that’s all the motivation it takes to get you through the day.

For the Record…
I don’t regret ending my time on JET, but I do regret HOW it was ended. There were issues at work that I wanted to discuss with the vice-principal, but as it boiled down to things like “I think ALTs are treated like performing monkeys and yes I can use chopsticks,” things which can be taken as accusations of willful racism, I couldn’t bring myself to broach the subject. It bothers me now that I didn’t screw up the courage to bring up the hard topics that actually might have made a positive difference in future ALTs’ lives and deepened Japanese people’s understanding of foreigners as human beings FIRST and foreigners second. If I could do it over, I would go to the teacher I trusted most with delicate topics and ask them for advice on bringing those things up with the vice principal, to see if a change would have been possible. Even if it hadn’t been possible, I would have at least left knowing that I tried.

Spreading Halloween Cheer


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There are several loose ends from my time as an ALT that I had yet to tie up. One of them was the drawing I had promised the underclassmen of the English club. I had drawn the upperclassmen for a poster for the culture festival this past June but hadn’t had time to do a picture for the underclassmen. So I set Halloween as a deadline for myself and spent about two weeks making an original, full-color drawing of the 7 members in costumes.

It had been a long time since I sat down to ink and color by hand instead of just doing it on the computer.

It had been a long time since I sat down to ink and color by hand instead of just doing it on the computer.

I unfortunately hadn’t gotten to know the freshmen members well enough to draw them in costumes that would have meaning for them, so save for the student whom I knew loved High School Musical I just picked popular costumes. They ended up being a Wildcats cheerleader, a witch, Princess Leia, a pirate, Dracula (after the one in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), a black cat, and Michael Jackson in “Smooth Criminal.”

Love how a moon ended up framing a face by chance.

Adorable Halloween wrapping paper: love how a moon ended up framing a face by chance.

I sent the drawing to the school via Global Express to ensure it arrives by Halloween. The airway bill included the question “purpose of shipment” and I wrote in “To spread happiness. ^o^” I hope that doesn’t make Customs think the envelope contains flat shrooms or something like that, ahaha…

Happy Halloween, O World!

What’s In A Name?

I’ve been home for little over a week now after ending 4 years on JET. As I try to find my next step, I’ve been thinking about the reasons why I decided to leave in the first place. Despite my original intention when joining JET of getting good enough at Japanese to teach it, I ended up so dissatisfied at work that I would say to anyone who asked me if I’d consider continuing in education, “I don’t want to teach anybody anything.”

My stance on that has softened somewhat as I remember what the draw of teaching Japanese had originally been. And I realized that hands down, what I came to hate about work was that I felt like I wasn’t getting even the bare minimum of respect that someone at the bottom of the school totem pole should get. Not consistently anyway.

Right now new ALTs are probably thinking about things such as “What should I have the students call me?” I’m a big proponent of Mr./Ms.+Last Name, especially if that is the way teachers are addressed in the ALT’s home country. It’s also a matter of respect and establishing yourself as being above the students. Maybe that sounds a bit high and mighty, but in a society as hierarchical as Japan’s, and in regions that still often treat foreigners as curiosities rather than human beings, it’s important to establish who’s who.

People who are at least vaguely familiar with Japanese culture might have some ideas about the sempai-kouhai relationship. While I was aware from the start that sempai, one’s “senior” be it at work or in life, were regarded with respect by their kouhai (juniors), I never realized how deep and important this relationship was until I’d been working in Japan for a couple of years. Students actually bow to their sempai. For example, 10th graders bow to 11th and 12th graders, and the 11th graders bow to the seniors. In my school’s English club, all the students went by cutsie nicknames, but the underclassmen never addressed the upperclassmen without an honorific, even if it meant saying somewhat silly sounding things like nickname-chan-san. When referring to the one junior in the club, the sophomores, talking amongst themselves, would always call him Last Name-sempai. When talking about him to me sometimes they’d use his first name, I don’t exactly know why, but they never called him his first name to his face.

If students show that much respect to each other, what kind of sense does it make to have them call ALTs by their first names?

The majority of ALTs might not have teaching certification, but they’re still adults. What’s more, they get put into schools, in name if nothing else, as “assistant language teachers.” When school faculty and staff address the ALT by the ALT’s first name, especially without the -sensei honorific, they are destroying what shred of credibility the ALT might have had with the students. When students don’t take the ALT seriously, they don’t take the class seriously, and the class becomes a pointless waste of everyone’s time. In contrast, the two (out of 10) homerooms that did address me as Ms. Last Name, as I had explained at the beginning of the school year, were much more open to participating in the class, and performed better on tests. Could it be because they took that extra step of actually understanding and using a basic part of American culture?

I’ve had at least two ALTs tell me that they were uncomfortable with being called Mr./Ms. Last Name because to them, that signified their father or their mother. I found that a bit strange. I can understand their sentiment but at the same time I don’t understand why they don’t also just see it as “adults are addressed this way and I’m an adult.” My mother was a school teacher but it doesn’t bother me to be addressed the same way; I just take it as “I’m an adult being addressed as adults are.”

Ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, it is up to each individual ALT to set the rules for how students and coworkers address them. I hope this made anyone thinking of letting students address them by first name alone think more deeply about their position.


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