Monday, November 29, 2004

Nishinoshima, OKI - Nov. 6, 2004

Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

It was a foggy day that Saturday, but you can still get a sense of the rugged landscape and awesome scenery on Nishinoshima.

Read about my adventures here in the post below.

OKI Islands - Nov. 6th & 7th

I became friends with Canadian/American JET Jodi during Tokyo orientation when we both had just arrived in Japan for the first time. She’s a really down-to-earth person and one of the nicest people I’ve met since being here. She got assigned to the OKI Islands, a small island group just off the coast of Shimane-ken, and furthermore to the smallest of the 4 islands - Chibu.

Her husband, Matt, joined her out on Chibu shortly after Jodi arrived in late July and I’d been meaning to visit them ever since we saw each other again at the prefectural orientation in late August.

JETs tend to fill up our weekends with assorted activities, so it wasn’t until the weekend of November 6th and 7th that our schedules meshed so I could plan on visiting OKI. My friend, Rusty, asked if he could tag along, and happy to have company, I planned on meeting Rusty over in Izumo and heading out early Saturday the 6th.

In order to get to the OKIs, you have to take a ferry that takes about 2 hours. The ferry only departs the Shimane coast twice a day - once at 9:30am and again at 3pm. We decided to try to catch the 9:30am ferry so we wouldn’t miss most of Saturday, but that meant getting a train to Matsue and then a bus from Matsue to the port where the ferry departs - a total travel time of about 2 hrs. Add to that the 2 hrs on the ferry and it was about 4 hours of traveling to get out to OKI, which may be one reason more JETs don’t ever visit. But they’re really missing out.

The ferry cost about $25 for a one-way ticket. It’s unusual in that there are no seats inside. Just wide, carpeted spaces with small blankets and pillows available. The idea is that you lie down and that helps combat seasickness. Many of our fellow passengers took a nap for the two-hour duration, but Rusty and I watched TV, played Game-Boy, chatted or walked about the ship. The Japan Sea was a bit choppy that day, but boats don’t really bother me that much so I was fine.

We arrived at Nishinoshima island at about 11:30 and met Jodi and Matt and Australian CIR Alana, who is the sole JET living on Nishinoshima. Alana was involved in an international day of sorts at her community center, so we hung out and got to sample the local delicacy of “squid balls.” OK - I didn’t try them, but Rusty and Matt did. Basically, they were balls of dough with a chunk of squid embedded inside with some other ingredients like mayonnaise and chopped green onions all fried up into a ball the size of your standard meatball. Chewy, but decent was Matt’s verdict. I got some yaki tori chicken strips and chowed down on those. Jodi didn't eat, as she is a vegetarian, but I try not to hold that against her. :)

Alana finished up and all 5 of us crammed into her little car and started our tour of Nishinoshima. Some great scenery and hiking spots. I hope to post some more photos that Matt took with his digital camera. Cows graze free and we often had to be careful not to hit one darting around on the narrow roads. We visited a shrine built into the side of a mountain, but I’ll admit I was a bit pooped by then and opted out of hiking up to see it. Alana taught us about the dangers of “swooping,” which apparently is an Australian phenomenon where birds swoop down and attack innocent pedestrians. We were on alert for possible swooping incidents the rest of the weekend.

Getting hungry and a bit tired, we headed for the inter-island ferry to take us over to Jodi and Matt’s home island of Chibu. $3 for each of us and $10 for Alana’s car, which it was pointed out by the gas-station attendant was only supposed to legally carry 4 total people, not 5. We thought he might call the police on us, but Alana wasn’t worried as she plays tennis with one of the only two police officers on the island.

We arrived on Chibu in no time and decided to head out to the island’s ONLY restaurant for dinner. Ironically, it’s a little family owned and operated joint that serves Italian food. The owner’s daughters do the cooking and I had steak for the first time since coming to Japan, while the others tried some of the various pasta dishes on offer. Delicious.
Chibu only has about 750 people, so it goes without saying that Jodi and Matt are the only two non-Japanese on the island. I think having her husband with her allows Jodi to keep it together in such isolation, especially since she spoke no Japanese when she first arrived 4 months ago.

We all retired to Jodi’s apartment, a roomy place in a complex overlooking a Chibu harbor. We had fun playing cards and the “name game” and a drinking game called “Kings.” Rusty and I kipped out on futons in the spare room that Matt uses for painting, a hobby of his that he’s very good at, and Jodi uses as a study. Their apartment is a more traditional tatami mat setup, unlike the hard wood floors I have at my apartment.

I awoke on Sunday morning to find Matt busy making pancakes from scratch and Jodi and Alana relaxing on the balcony enjoying the sun and very warm weather. It was about 70 degrees F that sunday, compared to the high 50s that awaited us when we returned to the mainland. Alana had to skedaddle off to attend to other business, so the 4 of us decided to explore a bit of Chibu and take advantage of the fine weather. Matt and I rode mopeds over to the beach and Jodi and Rusty followed on foot. They have an amazing beach - secluded and rather private. The water is very clear and blue, and according to Jodi is very warm in the summer. Matt enjoys fishing and they both enjoy snorkeling, so they’re well suited to life on this small island. I don’t know if I could be happy out there, but they’re having a good time, and being so close to the water has convinced Jodi that she wants to live close to the water when she leaves JET and returns to the world.

We had to make the Sunday ferry, which departs Nishinoshima at 3pm so we said our goodbyes and boarded the small inter-island ferry. After a smoother inbound ferry ride back to the mainland and a bus and train ride, Rusty and I made it back to Izumo at around 7:30pm, and hungry for dinner we hit the local MOS Burger for some tasty hamburgers and shakes.

All-in-all a great weekend. Rusty and I both plan on making it out to OKI in the new year. Jodi and Matt are traveling a lot right now. They just got back from Korea and are off to the Philippines for the Xmas holiday, so I’m sure they’ll have lots to tell us during our next visit. It was such a relaxing visit and a great and scenic place to stay, that I can’t wait to visit again.


Sunday, November 28, 2004

Jason's Angels

Speech Cntst group1
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

Wait, if this is supposed to be like "Charlie's Angles" wouldn't that make me Bosley in this photo? Can I at least be the cool Bill Murray version of Bosley?

At the Englsih Recitation contest - Saturday, November 13th. From left: Me, Saki, Nonoka, & Wakiko

Unfortunately we didn't win that trophy - that was last year's trophy that Taisha JH won and we're returning it for this year's winner, which ended up being Hamayama JH. My group, pictured here, did well and came in 2nd.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Weekend of Halloween

The Weekend of October 30th (Saturday) and 31st (Sunday) was a good time. I’ve already posted photos below, so check them out.

Saturday started with a school event that took place in my town at first. I was in charge of asking other JETs to come to Taisha and participate in an “International Day” where we would interact with 4th, 5th and 6th graders from 3 of the local elementary schools.

I managed to get 6 other ALTs to join me for fun with the kids. Heather (Canadian), Olivia (American by way of Singapore), Amy (Canadian), Rob (American) and his girlfriend Kayoko (who supplied the digital pics), Chris (American) and me all joined some Chinese language teachers on a bus trip to Akagi-cho to pick apples and spend some time with the students.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but the man in charge was really organized and good with the kids, having prepared games to play on the bus and activities to keep us busy.

It turned out to be a slightly overcast day, but no rain fell, so that was good. The apple orchard ended up being about two-hours away by bus, but the kids were surprisingly content and we played some games along the way. Many of the students in my group asked me to draw something in their event program. I really need to learn to draw a few things other than my old standby (Batman) that I can draw quickly. Until you have to interact with younger children on a daily basis you don’t realize how useful it would be to know a few magic tricks or how to juggle or how to draw.

The apples were big and tasty, and very sweet. We ate our fill and then it was off to pick blueberries, which weren’t quite as tasty. Then we had lunch, all sitting around a baseball diamond. The lunch consisted of “chocolate” milk and various sweet breads. That’s it. Nothing “savory” at all. I guess they figured we’d already be half-full from all the apples. I say chocolate milk hesitantly because I have yet to have true chocolate milk here - it’s always flavored with some degree of coffee flavoring. They want to hook the kids early I guess. They also love to fill their bread with bean paste or other fillings. I’m sure I could tell what I was about to eat if I could read the kanji on the packaging, but sometimes I take a blind bite only to be met by a strange and unexpected taste sensation.

We played some games like a very fast Japanese version of patty cake and then a spirited game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” I displayed my virtuosity at elbow-quarter-catching. This is where you stack coins on your raised and bent elbow and then in one swift motion, you lower and extend your arm and catch all the coins in your hand. Oohs and Aahhhs from the kids. :)

We got back in the bus and headed back to Taisha. Impromptu autograph sessions broke out, and the kids even asked for mine, even though most of them see me all the time at their respective elementary schools. I brought picture flash cards and we had a little trivia bee in the back of the bus, while the Chinese ALTs sang traditional songs. When asked to sing an American song, all I could think of was B-I-N-G-O, so we sang that and had fun clapping along.

When we arrived back in Taisha, we were asked to say a few words to the kids and some of the parents that had arrived to pick them up. I spoke mostly in English, but added a deferential “Arigatoo Gozaimasu” and bowed. Somebody else also said “arigatoo” at the end of their speech, but instead of the usual and correct pronunciation of “are-ri-gaw-toe” they pronounced it “ah-rehg-gih-tow”. Unbelievable. If there’s one word you should know how to say after being here for a while, it’s "arigatoo gozaimasu." Heck, hadn’t they ever heard the Styx song “Mr. Roboto”?

Anyway, another nice bonus was that the event organizers paid us for our travel expenses and our time. I wasn’t expecting anything, but the extra cash was a nice surprise.

That night, my friend, Rusty, who lives in Izumo was having a Halloween party. He wasn’t expecting that many people to show up, since many JETs had attended the bigger party in Matsue the night before, but by the time I got to his apartment, located in the appropriately named complex “The Friendship House,” at 10pm, there were about 20 people enjoying themselves, most of them in costume. I had wanted to wear my Merlin costume, but I absent-mindedly left it at school on Friday. So I went in civilian clothes and was roundly chastised for not improvising some sort of costume, especially by Rusty, who was wearing a makeshift toga made from one of his bed sheets. Fun was had by all, and the party went on to the wee hours of the morning. Downstairs, they had a HUGE carved pumpkin in the window. Not sure where they got it, since orange pumpkins are rare in Japan, let alone one of this gargantuan size. Should have snapped a photo of it.

Sunday, the 31st, was a lazy day. I got up about 10 am and called Rusty, who was surprisingly awake. We had planned on meeting over at my aparto to attend a soba noodle tasting that was just up the road from my place. He made it over just after 11 am, and we headed over to check out the eats. Rusty had already purchased coupon books for 900 yen that were good for 1000 yen worth of food. It was really crowded and busy, but we managed to make our way thru the crowds and walked around the various food stalls, checking out what was on offer. We first tried some gyoza (like a chinese pot sticker) that were made with soba wheat. Delicious! Then we wanted to have some hot noodles, so we traded in 600 yen worth of our coupons and got some tasty soba noodles in hot broth. We topped it off with some really good carmel ice cream and sat back and did some people watching, or I should say that people watched us. Various amounts of staring happen whenever we venture out in my town, since I’m the only westerner living in Taisha. We met our friend, Dustin, at the tasting and he invited us over to his place later to watch a Japanese movie called “Casshern.” Dustin is an American who’s on his fifth year as a JET. He teaches exclusively at elementary schools and his Japanese is very good. He’s just secured a job up in Hokkaido so he can stay in Japan after his contract with JET expires next July. (Five years is the maximum you can be in the programme) Rusty, Lisa (an American ALT living at the Friendship House), Mark (an Irish CIR also living at the Friendship House), Fintan (an Irish ALT from Matsue) and Dustin and myself all squeezed into his small apartment and watched this flick. It was incredibly weird and surreal, but beautifully made and put together. It was raining when we all set out for home later that night, so I got pretty wet going home on my scooter. One of the few drawbacks to my otherwise excellent mode of transport.

So that was that weekend - pretty good in sum, I must say.

Next longer posting will be about my trip out to the glorious OKI Islands that took place the first weekend in November. Also, I need to give you the results of the various speech contests I attended this month.

More soon.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Nishi group - Elvis pose

Nishi group - Elvis pose
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

From left: Me, Rusty, Alana, and Jodi.
All doing our best Elvis pose on Nishinoshima in the OKI Islands. Saturday, Nov. 6th.

You Too and U2

Hello All,

I'm super busy this week, and this weekend is also jam-packed with activities, so it might be about a week before I post another entry, that read, according to my Mother, "like a bloody novel." Thanx Mom! :)

But I've added a few photos to whet your appetite for next week's posts.

The bottom two are from the great Halloween gathering we had in Izumo on Saturday, October 30th.

And the one above is a group shot of the OKI Islands gang (doing our best Elvis pose) from the following weekend, November 6 &7. Matt, Jodi's husband, took the photo, so he's missing from the shot.

In non-Japan news, I recently paid $1 and downloaded the new U2 single from iTunes, the awesome online Apple Music store. U2, one of the best rock bands in the past 20 years, is releasing a new CD on November 23rd, but you can hear and buy their new single. It's called "Vertigo," and it echoes the first single ("Beautiful Day") off their fantastic previous album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." Like "Beautiful Day," "Vertigo" is chunky guitar rock featuring another great riff from the Edge and some fine vocal work from Bono. It's damn catchy, and I found myself humming it all day today after I played it for my Jr High kids during my weekly radio show at Taisha Chuugakkoo. So if you can, pick up their new album or download the new track - you won't be disappointed.

This gives me an opportunity to thank my folks once again for the excellent graduation gift - the excellent Apple iBook laptop that is my lifeline to the internet and all my friends and family via email. Never had a Mac before, but I'm totally satisfied, and iTunes is such a great digital music program, I'm so glad I chose to buy an Apple. You too can be cool - check out for all kinds of nifty computer stuff, including the best gadget since the cell phone, the iPod.

OK - enough blathering. Check back for another update next week.


Nigel as Waldo

Nigel as Waldo
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

My friend and fellow ALT, Nigel, in the best costume of the night as Waldo from the "Where's Waldo?" books.

Rusty - Hallwn 04

Rusty - Hallwn 04
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

Ever the host, Rusty making fruity liquor drinks in his best last-minute costume. Halloween Party '04 at the Izumo Friendship House.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Enkais and Elections

This entry covers events that happened from late October to early November.

Had my first thunder storms here during the first week of November and we even had some small hail. And guess what, I was walking to school when it started hailing. But more on that in a minute.

Nov. 1st to Nov. 5th was a slow week here. I know the election happened on Tuesday, but I had already submitted my absentee ballot weeks ago and the coverage didn’t really happen here until Wednesday because of the time difference.

That reminds me, I should mention that Japan doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, so now California is 17 hours behind and England is 9 hours behind Japan time. (instead of the previous difference of 16 and 8 hours respectively) Good info in case anyone wants to call me - I never get calls unless they’re wrong numbers dialed by very confused Japanese people who hear a strange Western voice on the other end.

Wednesday was a good day for the election to be covered here, because it was a national holiday (Culture Day) so I basically stayed home all day and watched the ABC news feed, which was broadcast in English in 45 minute chunks throughout the day and evening.

My initial reaction to the news that Bush had won reelection for a 2nd term is reflected in this e-mail message I sent to my brother, Paul. But since I’ve now had time to reflect, I don’t think it’s as grim as I first thought, but I am still profoundly disappointed and not exactly looking forward to the next 4 years with Bush still ensconced as our leader.

E-mail to Paul:


Sadly, I watched what little coverage I could here in Japan as Bush maintained his lead throughout the election and seemed destined for victory. While my one absentee ballot did little to change the result, I feel good that I was one of those "record number" of Americans who voted against perhaps the worst sitting president to ever be reelected.

But one thing discussed on the ABC news feed I was watching was the "rightness" of America now. And I'm not talking about correctness, but rather a move to the conservative right that doesn't seem to be a temporary shift by any means. We have to face the fact that America is a far different country now than it was even 4 years ago. 9/11 has impacted us in ways that are only now starting to emerge. While the west coast and much of the east coast voted for Kerry, the large middle and southern section of the country voted for Bush and his conservative "values." America is really a divided country now, and not since the days of the Civil War have we seen a nation so polarized and unwilling to compromise.

Bush could go a long way to repairing some of the partisan divide by making smart appointments and trying to move to the center on a few issues, but I seriously doubt he will take this course. If anything, he'll push further to the right and now that the Republicans have a majority in both houses and the presidency, I can see a day not too far from now when the Democratic party becomes the permanent minority party in the U.S., simply struggling to keep the Republicans from overwhelming national politics completely. It happened here in Japan, and it could happen in America. What will Bush do about the "Michael Moore voters" - those who really dislike him and his stance on Iraq? Probably nothing. It's really up to the Democratic party to muster the energy of these extremely dissatisfied citizens and channel that into gains for the Democrats in the next election.

The election did not go the way I had hoped, so I may just have to find a way to stay in Japan until 2008, or I may have to move back in a few years and find a way to make sure that the values and ideas I believe in are represented in Washington once again.


I’m not as sure the country is as divided as I stated above. I’ve read coverage of the aftermath of the election and one reporter mentioned that Americans are still by and large a united people - we all shop at the same Wal-Marts and Starbucks, we are by-and-large patriotic citizens who believe that America is a great country with a good political system. The country is as a whole Christian and shares many of the same values. While I am neither Christian nor overly patriotic, I do have faith in people and America is my home and always will be, so I hope that we can endure and maybe even thrive during the next four years - and at least Bush can’t run again in 2008.

Anyway, I need to post an entry about the Apple picking event, which is represented by a few pictures below. And the Halloween party and soba noodle tasting that happened that same weekend of Oct. 30th & 31st. So that’ll be my next entry. And then I need to describe the weekend trip to the OKI Islands I took on Nov. 6th and 7th, cuz I have a few pictures to post for that too.

But first, I’ll briefly describe why I was walking in the rain the other day.

Tuesday night, Nov. 2nd, I was invited to an “enkai” which is a formal Japanese party with drinking and eating and speeches. I was a special guest, as it was a “welcome” party for me and a farewell party for others leaving my local Board of Education, the people that employ me. So I put on a jacket and tie and rode thru the rain to my town offices, where I left my scooter and we went by car up the road to a nearby inn that has special rooms for these type of large parties. Everyone sits on the floor in front of a small, ground-level table about 2 feet by 2 feet. I was seated near the front, befitting my special guest status. I usually have a so-so time at these events, since I can’t really converse with anyone due to the language barrier. But my supervisor was seated next to me, and he always tries his best to make sure I’m enjoying myself, despite his limited English. The meal consists of many small portions, and they always serve fish in most of these courses, so I don’t end up eating much as I don’t eat anything that swims. And the only thing they usually have to drink is beer or sake, and I really don’t drink. Another interesting thing is that you can’t eat or drink ANYTHING at a Japanese enkai until the first few speeches have been given and they make an official toast and say “Kanpai,” the Japanese version of “Cheers.” Can you imagine being at a dinner party in America for 20 or more people where you have to stand around and chat with no appetizers or beverages at all for the first 20 or 30 minutes?

I’ve been to a number of these parties now, and I’ve discovered that they’re really expensive as well. The first one I went to was also for me, so as a guest I wasn’t expected to pay. But the day after I went to the 2nd one, for a departing teacher at my Jr. High, another teacher came to my desk and casually mentioned that I owed 7000¥, which is about $70, for last night’s party. I was flabbergasted. Apparently, $70 is standard for men and women pay about $50. I paid, but I decided that I would find out ahead of time next time how much it was gonna cost before I agreed to go. So the next time I was invited by the Kendo parents, I declined, explaining to my Japanese teacher, who is also the Kendo coach, that I couldn’t really afford to spend $70 on a party where I barely ate anything and barely drank anything. But the parents insisted I come, and said that I could attend without paying. So I agreed to go and when I arrived I found out that they had arranged to have a special dinner made for me with steak and spaghetti and they even had bottles of Pepsi brought in. So then I felt a bit sheepish about refusing to pay, but I’ll make it up to them.

The fun part of these parties is that it’s socially acceptable to get pretty drunk, and it’s one of the few times you get to see your co-workers with their guard down and sometimes their real personalities emerge and you’d be surprised how much some of them can speak English after they’ve had a little alcohol to bolster their confidence. And often, the dinner party is only the first party. Often, small groups will continue the party at a local bar or karaoke joint or even someone’s home.

The tolerance for drinking and driving here is ZERO. You can even get in trouble for riding your bicycle if you’ve been drinking, so most people at these parties take a taxi home or have their spouse come and pick them up. So after the party on Nov. 2nd, we all went to a local bar that has karaoke, and I entertained with my rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” and then we had a group sing of “Imagine” by John Lennon, who is as revered over here just as much as he is in the West. I was drinking cola the whole time and had only had a few sips of beer during dinner and for the Kanpai toast. As a conversation starter, people at these parties get up and go to other guests, and offer to refill their glass of beer, so I had to drink a gulp or two from time to time just to be polite. But even though I’ve lost weight since coming here, I still am a big enough guy that a few gulps of beer and the odd shot of sake are hardly going to get me “drunk” or even tipsy.

Still, when it came time to go home, my supervisor refused to allow me to drive my scooter home, so I had to go with him by taxi, which are really expensive over here BTW. So wednesday, I had told the Kendo coach I would try and make it to school, even though it was a holiday, to help coach the girls participating in the upcoming speech contest. I slept in, but managed to get ready to leave my aparto by 11 am. It was cloudy and raining ever so slightly, but I decided I would walk the 25 minutes to school, check in on the girls, and then get my scooter, which was still parked at the town hall. Well, about 10 minutes into my walk, the heavens opened up and it started to pour. And then about 5 minutes later it started to hail. I ducked under some cover in a open garage and waited out the hail. I was wearing jeans and sneakers, and I was soaked right thru, but I was already halfway to school, so I decided to trudge on, since I was already soaked. I got to school only to find that everyone I needed to see had already gone home, so I grumbled some hellos to students that probably wondered what their English teacher was doing walking to school in the rain on a holiday. I walked down the road, got on my scooter and rode home. Of course, by that time it had stopped raining, and as some cosmic joke, a rainbow started to appear on the horizon. *sigh*

OK - enough for now. I’ll post soon about the more interesting apple picking event and my trip to OKI, and more pictures are on the way as well. Be good.


Saturday, November 13, 2004

Apple group 2

Apple group 2
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

We also picked blueberries that day and ate lunch with the kids and played games. A great day - thanx to all the other ALTs who came out and helped Taisha have a successful event.

Jason w kids 10_04

Jason w kids 10_04
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

Click on any of the photos to be taken to Flickr where I'll be storing all my blog photos online, including other photos not posted to the blog.

Apple group 1

Apple group 1
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

Apple picking photos from a day trip me and 6 other ALTs took on Saturday, October 30th. We had to chaperone small groups of elementary students from 3 of my local schools here in Taisha. A fun time was had by all. Thanks to Kayoko for the photos!

Friday, November 12, 2004

Rainy and Cold

It's been rainy and cold today, ending a week of really nice weather. Winter is settling in here, but we've had some nice autumn days - crisp, sunny and not too cold.

I've been super busy recently, and I have many topics and events that I want to blog about, so look for some updates this weekend or early next week.

I had a great moment of fanboy satisffaction this week, because in news completely unrelated to Japan, the new Star Wars trailer is available for viewing online Here, and Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith looks to be the movie all us Star Wars fans hope it will be - dark and exciting, revealing the story behind the transformation of Anakin Skywalker (Luke and Leia's dad) into Darth Vader.

Hope all is well where you are.


Thursday, November 04, 2004

Speechifying in the Land of the Rising Sun

I haven’t been attending Kendo practice for the past two weeks, which is a shame cuz I’d just started to develop a great Kendo blister on my right foot. I was told not to wear socks inside my house to toughen the soles of my feet for the kendo floor, cuz all the stomping and moving around in bare feet on the hard wood floors requires tough soles. And I’d just started getting a good callous going, when I had to stop practicing.

Instead I’m involved in the callous-free activity of English speech practice. 3 of my san-nen sei (9th grade) girls are practicing for an English recitation contest that takes place on Saturday, November 13th.
I’m also helping two other girls (one 8th grader and one 9th grader) prepare for a more demanding recitation contest that takes place on November 18th.

The three girls competing on the 13th are Wakiko, Nonoka and Saki. They each have to memorize a short piece in English (from 1 to 3 minutes in length) and then recite it in front on an audience and judges. They get to pick their selection out of a book with a number of choices. Wakiko picked a piece from the first “Harry Potter” book, when Harry and Ron discover the invisibility cloak. She’s doing well with her piece, but some of the words are really tough for her, like “fluid,” “silvery,” and “invisible.”

Nonoka picked a rather curious piece as it’s based on the understanding of English puns. It’s akin to the famous “Who’s on First?” routine by Abbot and Costello. But Nonoka’s piece involves Mr. Watt (“what”) and Mr. Will Knott (“not”). She’s doing well too, but the rhythm and timing needed to really sell the selection is slow coming.

Saki picked a piece that is also featured in the 9th grade English Textbook in longer form. It’s called “A Mother’s Lullaby.” Here is an excerpt:

“One day, a big bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima. Many people lost their lives, and many others were injured. They had burns all over their bodies. I was very sad when i saw those people.
On the night of that day, some people were already dead. I heard a lullaby. A young girl was singing to a little boy.
“Mommy! Mommy!” the boy cried.
“Don’t cry,” the girl said. “Mommy is here.” Then she began to sing again.

The story ends this way:
After a while the boy stopped crying and quietly died. But the little mother did not stop singing. It was a sad lullaby. The girl’s voice became weaker and weaker.
Morning came and the sun rose, but the girl never moved again.

And then Saki, who is a cute girl of 14 or 15, smiles real big and says “Thank you” and bows.

Now imagine that you’re an American and you’re asked on one of your first days in a Japanese classroom to read that story out loud from the text book, and then have the class repeat after you. It would be like asking a visiting Japanese teacher to read from a soldier’s diary who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and it’s not like the kids glared at me when I finished reading or anything, but it still made me uneasy somehow.

Asuka, one of the girls in the longer length piece competition, is reading an equally depressing selection about a young boy, named Ryuhei, who is a hemophiliac and gets AIDS from tainted blood that came from the U.S. Of course, with the proper dramatic emphasis, this story could be a real tear-jerker, but Asuka is simply struggling to pronounce all the English correctly and she says the entire 5 minute speech in the same monotone accent. And on the day of the competition I’m sure I’ll have to hear this piece at least 7 or 8 times, as each student picks their selection from the same book.

The last time I went to a speech contest this same thing happened. I had a male student, Hitoshi, in that competition who did really well, placing 4th out of about 35 students. Hitoshi had lived in the U.S. for 3 years when he was 6 to 9 years old, so I think they “handicapped” him a bit to make it fair for the other kids, cuz Hitoshi’s English is very good.
But I had a girl in that competition and her selection was called “Butterflies” and about 8 students, all girls, recited the same piece. No one else chose Hitoshi’s piece which was rather long and difficult. Most of the boys at that competition either picked a story about an ancient storyteller who has his ears cut off by a demon and is thereafter known as Naguchi the Earless, or a story about a little boy who draws pictures that come alive and one day he draws a tiger who devours all the monks in a temple. Nice stuff, huh? :)

Oh well, at least they’re speaking English and are motivated enough to memorize their pieces and come to practice everyday after school and even on the weekends.

And I’m learning way more than they are as I try to talk to them every day in Japanese and they help me with my Japanese grammar and pronunciation. I also ask them questions about their lives, so I’m gaining all sorts of interesting insights into the life of a Japanese teenager.

I’ll let you know how they all do in a couple of weeks, and then it’s back to Kendo practice for me and blisters on my feet.