Archive for March, 2010

I hurt all over.

I had to play soccer the other day. The school had a ball sports day, which meant that the first- and second-years students spent all morning playing in a soccer tournament and the winning team played a teachers team in the afternoon. I was on the teachers team.

I was asked to be on the teachers team in the morning, when I arrived at school, the morning after my wife and I had decided to have an impromptu drinking session, even though it was a Monday. I wasn’t especially hungover, but I had drunk pretty much a full bottle of wine the night before, so I decided I better shelve my plans to check out the new McDonald’s California Burger as a nutritional precaution.

It was the least I could do. I haven’t played football for several years now, and the last time I did it was as the captain of a very makeshift five-a-side team which played for charity. I don’t remember ever winning a game except against a team of mentally handicapped players who could only run in straight lines. I don’t think I am besmirching the mentally handicapped players too much when I say that we were rubbish.

So anyway, I turned out for the teachers team in my running shorts. The girls all took photos on their phones while the boys all sniggered as I took to the pitch to play the winning team of first-years – who had (thankfully) already played about five games that morning. I think there were about nine players on each side, but I really don’t know because once the action started, I just concentrated on standing in the right-back position and standing in the way of the ball or the opposing players.

There were a couple of ringers on both sides. One of the teachers used to play professionally for the local team, although he didn’t play for the whole match because of injury. And one of the first-years plays for the same local team’s youth team – in fact he demonstrated his skill by scoring two glorious goals: one, a low drive from distance that snuck into the corner of the goal; the other rising to meet a sweet cross with a great header. (I was blameless for both, obviously.)

In the end, the game went to extra-time and penalties. When it came to the penalties, I skulked around trying to look inconspicuous, which worked until it went to sudden death and the spectating students started chanting my name. The next day one of the other English teachers displayed a charming naivety about the rules of football. “You played very well yesterday,” he said. “All of the students thought so – they were calling your name! Amazing!”

Except, of course, the reason the students were calling my name is because it was sudden death penalties and they were hoping I’d fuck up. I didn’t disappoint, belting the ball straight at the keeper. Fortunately for me, and the rest of the teachers, I hit it so hard the keeper spilt it over the line, and we won, a glorious victory of wisdom over youth – 30-year-olds over 16-year-olds. Take that students!

The next day, that English teacher wasn’t the only one to comment on my performance. The principal also came over to tell me that everyone thought I had played like David Beckham. By which he presumably meant, as my sister pointed out, that it looked like I’d just suffered a career-threatening injury.

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White Day

White Day, in case you haven’t heard of it, is like Valentine’s Day in reverse. On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women are expected t o give chocolates to men. They give ordinary chocolate to their colleagues; special chocolates to people they like; and really special chocolates to people they really like. On White Day, those men are supposed to give chocolates in return.

Except I completely forgot about White Day and didn’t get my wife anything in return for the delicious chocolates she got me on Valentine’s Day. So the next day, I decided to make up for it by getting her a present. Now I knew she wanted some special moisturizing green tea soap that they’ve been advertising on the telly, but she won’t buy it because it’s too expensive. So I stopped off at our local pharmacy on the way home from work and searched for this green tea soap. I managed to find one type of green tea soap. Only one. But it clearly said that it was soap, made from green tea, and it had a picture of luxuriant froth on it, so I figured it must be pretty moisturizing. And it was expensive, which clinched it – I bought it and brought it home to my wife.

It turns out it was special anti-BO green tea soap.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, but I forgot about Valentine’s Day, too. I mean, technically I didn’t, because like I say, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give chocolates to men – men aren’t under any obligation to give presents to women. Nevertheless, I did intend to give my wife flowers for Valentine’s Day, but I forgot, so I bought some on my way home the next day, from the supermarket.

It turns out they were special funeral flowers.

This cultural exchange business is more difficult than I thought…

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The first time I came to Japan was on a trade mission organised by the British government. I came over as part of a delegation that represented the British videogame industry, to attend the Tokyo Game Show and talk to various developers and publishers about mutually beneficial commercial opportunities. One of the things I remember about that trip was that somebody asked the man from the British Council (who, by the way, seemed personally affronted that he had to suffer the ignominy of hosting a trade mission on behalf of the videogame industry) what he missed most about Britain. His answer? Baked beans.

I don’t miss baked beans at all. That’s actually pretty strange. I mean, I really like baked beans, and I used to eat them at least twice a week back in Britain. But I don’t miss them at all. What I miss most is cheese. Which is also strange. Because it’s not like there’s no cheese in Japan. There is lots of cheese in Japan. There is a whole sub-genre of frozen food that’s designed for the homemade bento boxes that sustain Japan’s workforce during its working day. Tiny dumplings, mini chicken burgers, small spring rolls – a near infinite variety of mechanically-recovered meat concoctions that unleash little explosions of flavour like some sort of packed-lunch amuse-bouche. A lot of them have some sort of basis in cheese, whether it’s a miniature slice neatly stacked on top of a sauce-covered mini-burger or a delicate squidge of melted cheese in the middle of a chicken-mince and renkon sandwich.

There’s a similar profusion of fromage when it comes to their full-sized brethren: croquettes, pizzas, curries, noodles, sandwiches… If there’s a way of making something cheese-based, the chances are the Japanese have tried it. They’ve even tinkered with the very fabric of cheese itself, unleashing a profusion of different types of processed cheese on the world. They’ve got processed cheese that has a salt-sharp edge to rival the most authentic parmeggiano, and creamy concoctions that melt in your mouth, just urging you to reach for another one. They’ve got cheese with black pepper in, cheese with salami in, cheese with nuts in, cheese with different colours in.

And it’s all pretty tasty. But it’s not real cheese. It has pretty much all been made in a laboratory and it tastes like it. The one exception to that is the currently vogueish Camembert, which is real cheese, made in the traditional manner, mostly in Hokkaido. It wouldn’t pass muster if you were a Frenchman (indeed my school’s French ALT did an almost textbook Bof! Zut Alors! face when we discussed the matter and begged me not to eat any Japanese ‘Camembert’). Again, it’s pretty tasty. But it’s not the real thing.

If you want the real thing you have to pay lots of money for miniscule amounts. Which is why my favourite Christmas present this year was the real, authentic, pungent, powerful Stilton that my parents sent over with my sisters. It was like inhaling oxygen after spending a year sniffing armpits. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to describe it like sniffing armpits and then eating them. If those armpits were Stilton. But hopefully you get my point. If you’re wondering what to bring to Japan, bring some cheese.

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Learning Japanese

One of the reasons that I don’t update this blog very frequently is that I am trying to learn Japanese, so I’m trying to limit my interaction with English-language sources and trying to maximise my interaction with Japanese-language stuff. It’s harder than I thought. (It’s also harder than I thought to write something interesting about learning Japanese, so the following is intended mainly for fellow learners who are looking to compare notes.)

Before coming to Japan I had tried to learn Japanese from various textbooks without ever getting very far. I started out, several years ago, with a book called Japanese in Three Months, which contained a lot of words and grammar points in rapid succession and haphazard order. I guess I lasted about three or four days of memorising vocab on the train to work before deciding I wasn’t getting very far. So then, at the suggestion of a colleague (who is now my wife), I decided to learn hiragana and katakana, and bought a book called Japanese for Busy People. It was better than the first one, but I still wasn’t making great progress, so, at the advice of someone on the internet I decided to switch to the Minna no Nihongo series of textbooks.

That was in September 2006. I’ve still got the email receipt. I’d say that was when I really seriously decided to learn Japanese, instead of just dipping into a textbook every now and then and telling myself I was learning Japanese. Certainly, the Minna no Nihongo textbooks were better than my previous textbooks, consisting of 50 lessons that each contain vocab, grammar points, sample sentences and dialogue, and various exercises. So whenever I could I’d learn the vocab and grammar points, and I’d listen to the Japanesepod podcasts while out running to consolidate what I was learning. Even still, there were still long periods where I was so busy with work that I did little more than reviewing words and grammar that I already knew, or even when I was so busy that I didn’t even do that (there was one six-month period where I didn’t open a textbook at all).

By March 2008 I’d largely completed the first two Minna no Nihongo textbooks and had moved on to yet another textbook, in the Kanzen Master series, which contained all of the grammar points and hundreds of example sentences for level 3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Still, though, the major obstacle I faced was lack of time. And so I took the decision to apply for a place on the JET programme, which I did around September of the same year.

Around that time, I stumbled on yet another new wheeze to learn Japanese. At the recommendation of the All Japanese All The Time website (or AJATT as it’s sometimes called by people who like abbreviating things), I decided to go through Heisig and learn how to read, write and understand the meaning of all of the basic jouyou kanji. Even with the help of the awesome Reviewing the Kanji website, it still took me somewhere between three to six months to finish it, but when I did, it made a huge difference. Having only had a haphazard understanding of kanji, all of a sudden (if you can call several months a sudden) anything in Japanese was fair game. Instead of being limited to textbooks, or having to ask my wife to help me read stuff, I was able to start to read anything in Japanese. Now, if there is one thing that I would recommend to new learners of Japanese, it’s Heisig.

And so, inspired by Heisig, I decided to abandon the textbooks and embrace the method endorsed by AJATT, which is to a) immerse yourself in Japanese, reading and listening to it all the time; and b) to take real-life Japanese sentences that you encounter while immersing yourself, and stick those sentences into a spaced repetition flashcard programme called Anki. What Anki does is to test you when it thinks you’re about to forget. In my case, it tests me every day to see if I can still understand those Japanese sentences.

I’d say the second part of that formula has gone pretty well: about a year after starting, I have over 5,000 sentences in my Anki deck, and I would say that I am probably about ready to pass the JLPT level 2.

The first part has gone pretty disastrously. I had thought that coming to Japan would help me immerse myself in Japanese, but in practice it’s much more difficult than I thought. I work pretty hard at school and so I spend almost my entire working day speaking or correcting English. There is little time for chit-chat at work, and the other teachers don’t really engage in it. When I get home, my wife insists on speaking to me in English and whenever I beg and plead with her to speak to me in Japanese we end up having a row. She doesn’t like me buying manga or books because we’re still paying for our wedding. And she doesn’t like it when I sit in front of the computer trying to learn Japanese, because she prefers me to spend time with her.

So for now, apart from overhearing incidental Japanese at school, or having the TV on in the background, my immersion environment consists of about half an hour of Japanese every day, listening to those podcasts, audiobooks, or Japanese movies that I’ve ripped to my ipod on my way to work, or out running. And since I never say anything in Japanese, my spoken Japanese is probably worse now than it was when I was working my way through Minna no Nihongo.

And that is how I am learning – or trying to learn – Japanese. In case it’s of any interest, like.

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