Archive for May, 2010

My new favourite song: haru ichiban

Today, as a special treat, I thought I’d share my current favourite song, Haru Ichiban, originally released in March 1976 (two months before I was born!), by Japanese girl group Candies:

I only know of its existence because three of the female teachers at my school dressed up as French maids and performed it at a recent enkai – a Japanese word which roughly approximates to a work drinks party, but is, more precisely, a curiously formal way of getting smashed on booze and forgetting about formalities for a couple of hours.

When I arrived in Tokyo for my orientation as a JET, they gave us plenty of advice about how to behave at an enkai. They gave us so much advice, in fact, that they made it seem like life in Japan is just one endless round of enkais, and at the very least I expected my fellow English teachers to arrange some sort of drinks reception to mark my arrival. As the long hot summer rolled on, however, it became increasingly apparent that there would be no welcome enkai for me, and it wasn’t until Christmas that I experienced my first one. Since then, I’ve been to two more – one was a retirement party for my former principal; the other was the annual welcome party for the new teachers who arrive in April.

They’ve all followed the same formula: sit down, and drink.

And all that advice that they give you at Tokyo can pretty safely be boiled down to: do what everybody else does, smile politely, and don’t worry if you make a mistake. (Which, I think, is pretty good advice for pretty much any formal situation.)

Where enkais differ from western-style works parties is in the methodical extent to which the drunken chaos is organised. First, you’re given a seat number at random. After you sit down at your random seat, you might exchange some small talk or pleasantries on your table, but basically, at the enkais I’ve been to, you’ll sit and wait in near silence for proceedings to begin. Then you sit and listen to some speeches. Then, at the end, everybody raises a glass for the official ‘kampai’, at which point you’re allowed to start drinking and eating.

What then happens is (normally) two hours of speed-drinking madness. Since it’s considered impolite in Japan to pour your own drink, at some point you’re expected to grab a bottle and wander around the room, pouring drinks for other people (giving you an excuse to chat to them). For the rest of the time, you are being inundated with drink. And then, just as everyone else’s face turns bright red from the booze, and your vision starts to become slightly hazy, there will be a set of closing speeches and organized cheering led by the school ouendan, or cheering squad, who go through a series of hand gestures and banshee screams before everybody shouts ‘Banzai’ as loud as they can.

And that is what happens at an enkai.

(They’re normally followed by a second part but I have yet to be invited, so I’m still waiting to know what happens at one.)

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On the magic of language.

The last time I wrote about learning a language, I wrote a turgid, boring piece that was a crime against both the English and Japanese languages. I guess it captured some of the hard slog involved and patience required for learning a new language.

This time may also turn out to be turgid and boring, but my aim is to talk about the magic of learning another language – those heady moments, away from the repeating things over and over, where you get to use your skills out in the wild; those moments where a sudden flash of comprehension shows you how far you’ve transformed your world.

Once upon a time, in a former life, I learned a magic trick. My friend Simon and I were out gallivanting in Cannes, with half of the UK videogame industry – including UK rich list member Jez San, who taught us a trick that he’d learned from famous mindbender Derren Brown. The trick involves asking someone to hide something in one of their hands; then asking them to hold out both of their hands in front of them; and then, piff, paff, poof, pointing to the hand that is holding the hidden object.

Unlike most magic, there’s no real deception. Just some simple rules about human behaviour that most people aren’t aware of. That night, I felt like Harry Potter as Simon and I wandered the streets, hotels and bars of Cannes, shouting at strangers to hide a coin in their hands. It was like we’d been initiated into a mysterious new world – a world where the old rules no longer applied; a world unknown to anybody other than we lucky few initiates.

That’s what learning a language is like.

The other week, I went to a wedding, in Tokyo. It was pretty interesting anyway, because it was my first Japanese wedding: first we had a traditional ceremony in a temple, where the couple exchanged vows and sake; then we had dinner in a Spanish venue, because the bride was Spanish; then we had drinks at an afterparty, that was accompanied by live music and attended by lots of people with strange hair and big muscles, because the groom works in the music industry and the bride works for Cirque de Soleil.

But it was also interesting because I got to use Japanese. Normally, the closest I get to real Japanese is sticking sentences into Anki and then repeating them for an hour every day, so this wedding felt like striding out on to the pitch at Wembley after doing nothing more than keepy-uppys in the back garden. And yet, there I was, actually communicating with people – real people, using real Japanese, talking about real things, like that annoying woman off the adverts, or is this the end of the queue, or how do you know my wife, or do you remember that time we went to the yakiniku restaurant, or whatever else we wanted to talk about. It felt like I was part of a mysterious new world. It felt like the old rules didn’t apply.

(Although, it turns out they still do. A few days later, I was practising for a sports march that my school had asked me to take part in, and one of the teachers told me to remember to keep looking up, straight ahead. Except I thought he was saying that I must be cold in my short-sleeve T-shirt, so I told him I like the cold. Fortunately, it sounded like I was making a hilarious foreign joke so all of the other teachers fell about in polite laughter, instead of just puzzled confusion.)

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