Taking the JLPT Exam

This last Sunday the 7th, I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or in Japanese, 日本語能力試験) at the beautiful Kobe Gakuin University. This is the Japanese government’s official language test, and passing the higher levels is a de-facto requirement for getting a job at a Japanese company. My experience calls to mind an age-old joke, of a man who walks into a bar. He sees a sign proclaiming, “Free beer for life if you beat the challenge!” The challenge is, as given by the seasoned barman, “Chug that half-gallon bottle of pepper whiskey in 6 minutes, and then two more tasks: there’s an incredibly mean old dog out back with a tooth that’s been infected for weeks. No vet can get close enough to extract it. And finally, there’s a girl upstairs who’s never been with a man, so we need someone to really show her a good time.” “That’s the stupidest challenge I’ve ever heard in my life!” says the man. Before the bartender can even reply, the man is already halfway through the whiskey. He finishes and slams it down, smashing it on the counter to smithereens and getting glass shards all over his hands. Doesn’t even look like this man can even stand, but he lets out a whoop and he’s ready. The bartender takes him out back to the dog and shuts the door. After a lot of growling, barking, scuffling, and screaming, the man emerges victorious, shirt ripped to shreds, scratches, bites, and bloodstains all over. “All right…” he pants, “now where’s the dog with the tooth?”

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So yeah, I really screwed the pooch on this test. Anyways, for anyone else taking the JLPT, the format is this: there are three sections, vocabulary, grammar/reading, and listening. By the way, for those unfamiliar, the JLPT is 5 levels, from N5 at the lowest (a gold participation sticker) to N1 (native fluency). I took N3, intermediate. The entire test was scheduled for four hours, with half hour breaks between each section. Sounds excessive, but most of this break time was actually taken up by extremely tedious test-collecting and counting, so in reality each break was only 10 minutes or so. I can’t remember exactly, but I remembered being pleasantly surprised that the test was not as hefty as I thought it’d be– all three sections had about 30-40 questions each.

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Kobe Gakuin University borders the ocean.

Vocabulary consisted of picking a kanji nearest in meaning to an underlined word in a sentence, picking the correct hiragana reading for a given kanji, and picking the right word/words to finish a sentence. Grammar/reading was more of picking the right phrase to finish a sentence, as well as reading comprehension questions. Finally, listening, where I screwed the pooch the hardest, was a mixture of “listen to this conversation and answer the written question,” “pick the most appropriate response to this question” (e.g. “What should we bring to the party? [A] It starts at 8. [B] Bring whatever you want!), and “in this picture, what is something that person A is most likely to say?”

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The “Battle of Santiago,” a 1962 World Cup match so dirty that it partly led to the invention of yellow and red cards.

Since the exam is given only twice a year, it’s pretty high-stakes, all-or-nothing. It was also comically overly strict. The proctors were even armed with yellow cards and red cards, exactly like soccer (in their front pockets, too), and the moment someone breached a rule, like opening their book too early or not putting their pencil down when time was up, the proctor would run over holding the card up in the air. Only thing missing was test-takers gathering around them and yelling in their face and maybe a VAR check. Same rules as well– two yellows get you sent off, and there are some offenses that are straight red, like taking out your cellphone or slide tackling from behind.

I was dreadfully underprepared. Although I speak more than non-zero Japanese, I didn’t start studying grammar in earnest until January 2019, six months after arriving, and even then I didn’t really do it regularly enough. I slacked off way too much, and it felt pretty bad having been here for a year and still having nothing to show for it. My original goal was to make N3 in a year and then N2 in two years. I wanted to have enough skill in Japanese to get a custom-made yukata (summer kimono) for summer festivals this year. Oh well, guess it’ll have to wait!

Going into the exam room solo also reminds me of college, and how much I hate strangers who are taking the same test as me– hearing things like “Oh man, I barely studied at all, I did 10 textbooks but then I stopped for like three days!” or “I literally didn’t study at all, but I took a practice listening test and got 100%.” Who are you trying to impress? Nobody thinks you’re cool because you didn’t study, and admitting that you studied makes you a normal person, not uncool. Also, as a side note, I also took a page from the Japanese’s book and was expecting all whites/other-non Asians to be taking the test, since it’s a test for foreigners. But instead, I was surprised to see that it was almost all Asian foreigners. Whoops!

Akashi Living & Reflections, Part 2

* This is the long awaited sequel to Cherry Blossoms & Reflections. Credit goes to Rika M. for the postcard cover photo.

With the last blog post, I had a startling realization, that had I not recontracted and this were my first and only year on JET, then all I would have to show for my experience is 20-some travel-guide-esque blog posts. The concept of just blogging about *me* and my feelings, etc. is so difficult to me that I only feel comfortable writing instructional-esque material, and even have personal posts in their own category. Although, I suppose, technically all my posts still fall under it.

Anyways, as my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan approaches, I thought I should dedicate a post to the city that so graciously houses me and to whose children I am “teaching” English, Akashi City. I know that in the past it’s been a little confusing as to where I actually live, but again, my school is in the town of Inami, despite it being called East Harima High School. I live, however, in Akashi.

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Also home to Akashi Castle (Ruins), demolished in 1874 and never rebuilt.

Nearly every city in Japan, be it Tokyo or a countryside town where trains run only once an hour, has some random claim claim to fame or some other kind of specialty. For example, Akashi’s neighboring Awaji Island is known for its onions, as well as the place where the gods pulled Japan out of the sea. I have a friend who lives in a modest rural town of 40,000, and their claim to fame is being located in the geographical center of Japan, as well as having connections with the Australian Olympic ping-pong team (no idea why). Tokyo, besides being the capital of Japan and all that, is also apparently known for its bananas, because the special souvenir snack you can only buy there is always “Tokyo banana,” despite the fact the amount of Tokyo banana plantations may be close to zero.

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Credit goes to Rika M. for this photo.

As for Akashi, we have three! First and foremost is Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Funnily enough, when I was visiting my girlfriend in 2017, she took me to this bridge as a day trip. It was a 2-hour drive from her place in Osaka, and at the time I thought it was, well, pretty neat. It passed out of my mind and I never imagined I’d be back one day.

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Secondly, and in fact the thing I pull out the most when people ask where I live, is that Akashi is where the national time of Japan is set, at the Akashi Planetarium.

Thirdly, Akashi has its own special dish called Akashiyaki, which is a fried ball of batter, heavy on the eggs, with a piece of octopus in it, dipped in dashi, a light fish broth and the base for nearly all Japanese soups, from miso soup to ramen. It is, in fact, the precursor of the now much more famous takoyaki that was invented in Osaka.

With that out of the way, I want to dedicate this post to some of the negatives of living in Japan. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll have to take everything with a grain of salt because I think I am pretty positively biased towards Japan. Nevertheless:

 Asian in Japan

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More relevant than you think. This is, of course, from King of the Hill.

The experience of being a foreigner in Japan is probably talked about and blogged about more than the weather. Is being a foreigner in Japan indeed like being in the seventh circle of Hell, where instead of a lake of boiling fire it’s constant passive-aggression, or is it a land of infinite friendliness, hospitality, and adventures, of being invited to carry a sacred shrine at a festival, just for being a cool foreign dude who happened to walk by?

For me, it’s not really either. I’m stuck in between the two worlds– I’m not Japanese, but I’m not the *cool* or *interesting* kind of foreigner either. I can’t help but feel some kids were a little disappointed to hear they were getting an American JET, only to find out that it’s some Asian dude. In fact, when I sent a self-intro video to a fellow JET for his school’s intercultural project, his kids had apparently reacted with just “he’s American?” and not much else. The general image of Americans in the Japan is still the good ol’ all-American Joe Football, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Either that, or to a lesser extent, African-Americans. Outside of major cities, my foreign friends who fit this bill still get a lot of attention, like getting free food at restaurants or excitedly asked for pictures of with drunk salarymen. I, on the other hand, am free to blend in and stand out as I please, which brings me to my next point.

Can Asians tell other Asians apart? Yes, they can, to a certain degree. However, most of the time, I blend in– restaurant staff always look to me as the group’s interpreter, despite the fact that I am often the one with the lowest Japanese ability among everyone. People don’t stare at me on the train. I see cashiers occasionally switch to English for my friends but speak in Japanese to me. After all, in a country that’s 98.1% ethnically Japanese, it’s pretty safe to assume that any light-skinned Asian person is most likely Japanese too. Other times, though, people can tell I’m not Japanese right off the bat, or they find out from the moment I open my mouth. The problem is, when people find out I’m not Japanese, they usually assume I’m Chinese.

Six months into the program, there were still teachers at the school who thought I was Chinese, despite having mentioned my Thai heritage in the many self-introductions I had to do when I first arrived. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your ethnicity confused; it happens, but the problem is that if people in Japan are prejudiced, the most commonly disliked group is the Chinese. Perhaps it stems from the history between the two nations (fuel for the older generation) and the huge amount of tourists, who often are seen as having horrible manners (fuel for the current generation). The hate is so mainstream and fairly accepted that I once saw a TV show all about “look at what those Chinese are doing!” featuring things like people dumping trash in public or jaywalking and almost getting hit by cars. Pretty crazy that something like that could be allowed to air on TV at all. in the screencap below, an expose on Chinese manners, the captions say something like “They bought some dango, touched it, ate it before paying, and then said they didn’t want two anymore!”

In the top right, “Chinese tourists manner faux pas!”

Anyways, as a result of that, I am always hyper-aware and paranoid of breaking any social rules, be it as minor as standing on the wrong side of the train door or putting money into someone’s hands rather than on the table at stores. I never want someone to look at me and think to themselves, “Oh look, it’s one of those BAD kind of foreigners,” especially since I’ve already lost my chances on being the cool foreigner from the cosmic lottery. For this reason I try to hide the fact that I’m a foreigner as much as I can in most situations, for example never, ever defaulting to English first and responding “that’s okay, no problem” to questions when I have no idea what they said. Yeah, that’s my life, I am way too caught up in the opinions of strangers.

But to conclude, although I still will never feel like the “good” or exciting kind of foreigner, at the end of the day, I am happy to blend in. I’m also happy that even when I don’t, I can give Japanese people an opportunity to learn that Asian-Americans do exist, and yes, they can be pretty cool too!

The Higashi-Harima Culture Festival

Oh, how time flies! I can hardly imagine a more idyllic lifestyle than that of a high schooler in the Japanese countryside. For better or for worse, your school becomes your life– from so-called “club activities” that practice till sundown, through vacations and holidays but never rain; sports days of mass competition; school festivals complete with food booths and massive banners nearly 20 feet tall; to finally, random days where students don’t have classes at all and can just have fun, be it a school-wide dodgeball tournament or spending some time playing an ancient poetry card-matching game.

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This last Thursday, June 6th, was Higashi-Harima’s bunkasai, or culture festival. It’s the equivalent of an American school fair, but with a little more school spirit and performances instead of rides. It’s important to preface that each grade, from first years to third, are divided into “homerooms” of about 30 students each, and from the very beginning of their school life they are encouraged to stick together and be the best 1-1, 2-6, etc. they can be. Within the first week of being a freshman at Higashi Harima, you are thrust into a school spirit battle with your fellow homeroom classmates, where new students spend a whole day learning how to sing the school’s alma mater, how to march in unison, and discovering how many times your entire class can skip a massive jump rope.

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On this same day, classes also chose which modern Japanese era (a brief explanation of eras can be found in my blog post here) they wanted to represent, anywhere from the Meiji period of the 1860s to the current Reiwa period. Based on this, classes created massive mosaics to be displayed in front of the school, probably measuring 20 feet tall and made up of many individual little paper squares. Classes also made their own flags for display in the gym during the other festivities, of which they could pick any theme they want, which is the picture at the top of this post.

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Not sure which Japanese era dinosaurs are from.

As for the performances, they of course took place in the gym, with appearances from broadcasting club, who emcees every school event, to drama and band, to my very own English club! English Speaking Society (ESS) is an extra responsibility nearly everyone on the JET Program takes on, and naturally they must perform at every year’s bunkasai. What exactly they do is up to the ALT in charge. Last year, my predecessor and they put on a production of The Little Prince, and this year I decided with my rudimentary editing skills to do a live dubbing of famous anime scenes. I removed all sound, added new music, sound effects, and Foley, while the students read their prepared translations as the characters on screen. So, imagine your favorite anime, translated by real Japanese people, read by real Japanese people, but in English, and devoid of any emotion whatsoever. That is to say, even if kids who joined English club are presumably interested in English, it’s still not enough to get them to say a line like “Ow, that hurt” with any kind of verisimilitude or effort whatsoever.

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Also co-starring me as Blueno, a villain from One Piece.

By the way, another worthy thing to mention, the quintessential Japanese experience of being miserable in the summer. Like the rest of the school, the gym has no A/C. The only way to cool it at all is to just open the windows. Performances have to take place with the lights down so you can see the stage lighting, so all the doors and windows must be shut up. It couldn’t have been more than 80 F (26.6 C) that day at the hottest, but with humidity also in the 80s, it felt like a broken sauna. The this-sucks-so-much-it’s-funny part was waiting for them to fix technical issues with showing the ending video, so we got to bake in a dark, humid gymnasium for 20 minutes just watching the staff unplug cables and slowly troubleshoot their Windows 7 laptops at the front of the gym. Despite this, students I have asked overwhelmingly prefer summer over winter.

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Students also set up booths selling standard festival food fare, from A to churro and yakisoba. It was a fun day, and you can tell that, at least for that day, everyone was loving their lives. Myself included!

Golden Week & Tokyo Disney, Land and Sea

The Land of the Rising Sun, the other dragon in the East, is sleepily stirring from a 10-day vacation, the likes of which are seldom seen. This was Golden Week, and this year’s saw the abdication of Emperor Emeritus Akihito, to be replaced by his son, Crown Prince/Emperor Naruhito!

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As seen on TV. On the right, the Imperial Treasures of Japan. On the left, Emperor Emeritus Akihito and his wife Empress Emerita Michiko.

Golden Week is a time where FOUR whole national holidays line up together in such a way that most people get the whole week off, making it one of the longest breaks and thus busiest travel seasons of the year. These holidays are Showa Day (April 29), Emperor Hirohito’s birthday; Constitution Day (May 3), when Japan got its new constitution under Allied occupation; Greenery Day (May 4), a Japanese Earth day; and Children’s Day (May 5).

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A screenshot from the era name announcement ceremony.

I was in Tokyo for three days, the first of which included a stop by the Imperial Palace where the Emperor lives. This was on May 1st, which, because of Akihito’s abdication the day before, marked the beginning of a new era: from 平成 Heisei (1989 – 2019), “achieving peace,” to 令和 Reiwa, which means “beautiful harmony.” The name is chosen by a panel of experts that includes academics and company presidents, and this particular one was chosen from a line from a classical Japanese poem. Japan uses a special calendar based on Emperors’ reigns, so a new era begins when a new one takes the throne, and ends upon their leaving it (usually from passing away). This has been a tradition for 1400 years. Just to give a sense of how much history these eras can cover, the last emperor before Akihito was Hirohito, who was Emperor during World War II. Go only two more eras back, and you’re already at the time of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan ended its policy of isolation and opened itself up to the world in 1853. Damn!

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Even LEGO Woody wants to welcome you to the new era!

Besides the hubbub, although I was able to get closer to the palace than I was last time, as a mere peasant I was sadly unable to catch a glimpse of the Emperor or anything like that. Anyways, onward to my next two days, at…

Tokyo Disneyland

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I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. I’d go once a month, and even twice a month during my considerably freer college days. It is only natural that I should visit Tokyo Disneyland, and though this wasn’t my first time, it is my first time writing about it!

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Tokyo Disneyland features Cinderella Castle instead of Sleeping Beauty. Credit goes to Rika M. for this one.

Tokyo Disneyland was built in 1983, apparently the first to be built outside the US. If you asked me to sum up the biggest difference, well, I’d say that it’s Disneyland, except in Japanese. The rides/attractions and layout of the park are near exactly the same to its counterpart in Anaheim. Some, like Pirates of the Caribbean, are even still in English! Now that’s some culture shock. All the animatronics, set-pieces, scenery, and so on are the same, except perhaps just a tiny bit differently laid out in terms of order. Some, of course (such as Star Tours), are in the Japanese language, but the rides in and of themselves are exactly the same. There are a few exclusive attractions, like Stitch Encounter and Monsters Inc. Ride & Go Seek, but you will also recognize many others such as Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Western River Railroad (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), and the various Fantasyland rides we all know and love. The lands are also roughly the same, featuring World Bazaar (similar in appearance to Main Street, USA, complete with Penny Arcade), Adventureland, Westernland (i.e. Frontierland), Critter Country, Toontown, and Tomorrowland.

Nevertheless, there is still a distinctly Japanese twinge to the park, in the food and souvenirs they offer– much more focus on snacks, aesthetic packaging to make said snacks candidates for nice omiyage, handkerchiefs, a lot of Duffy products, soup bowls, soy sauce dishes, chopsticks, and so on and so on. Either way, I must admit that at the end of the day I felt more like I was in Disneyland in Japan, rather than being in a Japanese Disneyland. Now, if you want a totally unique experience, head on over to its aquatic neighbor.

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Some of the food offerings at the Tokyo Disney Parks, including seafood calzones and garlic shrimp popcorn.

Tokyo Disney Sea

Hop on the Disneyland Monorail to take you to Disney Sea.

Much as how California Adventure is the slightly more thrilling counterpart of Disneyland, so too is Tokyo Disney Sea. Indiana Jones is housed here instead of in Tokyo Disneyland, but aside from that, it doesn’t share a single ride in common with Anaheim Disneyland.

Being Disney “Sea,” the park is very decidedly water-themed, where each land represents a different region of the world: American Waterfront, recalling early 1900s San Francisco; Port Discovery, its steampunk aesthetic based on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Lost River Delta, exactly where you’d expect Indiana Jones to be, 1930s Central America; Arabian Coast; Mediterranean Harbor, complete with gondolas; Mysterious Island, another Jules Verne-themed land; and finally, Mermaid Cove where Ariel lives.

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Clockwise from top left: globe fountain at the entrance, Tower of Terror and the SS Columbia of American Waterfront, Mount Prometheus of Mysterious Island, the Temple of the Crystal Skull of the Lost River Delta, and the gondoliers of Mediterranean Harbor.

At the center of the park is the volcanic Mount Prometheus, and the Journey to the Center of the Earth ride takes you into the depths of it. Think Matterhorn Bobsleds except subterranean and with magma instead of snow, and with weird Half Life-ish boss creatures rather than the Abominable Snowman. The ride itself is kind of like Radiator Springs Racers in California Adventure, in that the first part is a slow ride taking you through different scenery and dioramas, and the final part is when you “break out”– it speeds up, there’s drops and bumps, and before you know it you’re back to civilization. I didn’t take a video because it was my first time riding it, but here’s a POV ride-through on YouTube.

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It’s worth mentioning that these pair of parks are the only ones not actually owned by Disney– instead, they’re owned by the Oriental Land Company, which licenses the Disney brand from them. This means that you get to see creative choices that would otherwise probably not fly at Disney parks, namely focusing on things as obscure as Jules Vernes’s works, two of which aren’t even Disney movies: The Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Since I went during Golden Week, both parks are incredibly crowded. We had to wait three hours for each ride, so we were only able to do three rides a day or so. I would not recommend going during this time, absolutely not. But any other time at all, absolutely yes! If you love Disney, or at the very least, enjoy fun and aren’t a contrarian, you’ll enjoy these parks. And finally, since there was nowhere else to put it, there is this amazing, utterly bizarre animatronic alien that “makes” pizzas over at Tokyo Disneyland, at Pan Galactic Pizza Port:

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Cherry Blossoms and Reflections

I have been in Japan for over half a year now, completely shattering my previous record of two months. I started this blog so that I could have something to look back on, a diary of sorts. The problem is, this hasn’t really been a diary at all. Funnily enough, I feel much more comfortable writing instruction manuals/guides rather than writing about myself, even privately! To look back 10 years from now to an explanation of Osaka’s Sun Tower by my 25-year-old self won’t feel particularly self-reflective or nostalgic. So buckle down, tab out, and unsubscribe, here comes an incredibly long, personal post.

Life in Hollywood: A Retrospective

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The cherry blossoms in Osaka Castle Park.

The same as my degree, the only tangible benefit about having worked in Hollywood is just being able to tell people I did. In reality, for the former, my grades were mediocre, and for the latter, I was pretty much the bottom of the totem pole. I have been interested in filmmaking ever since my family got an audio-less digital camera when I was in the 7th grade. To date, one of my first, and admittedly best, attempts at it was this short lightsaber duel I made in high school.

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Before that, though, I had been obsessed with a show called Get Smart, a sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1970. It was a parody of James Bond and the spy genre in general, created by none other than Mel Brooks himself. It was hugely influential, to watch a show that, despite being nearly half a century old, could still surprise me and make me actually laugh. It taught me that high quality doesn’t age.

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A second big influence was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, in which a poor village hires seven samurai to fend off an upcoming bandit attack. It taught me that you don’t need to have an Inception-esque complicated plot in order to make a good story. I set about on a project that consumed nearly two years of my life– creating my own action-comedy spy series, called Special Agent Jones. I wrote several scripts, created an intro sequence with music, had rehearsals, auditions, even fight choreography.

Long story short, despite my ambitions, we produced the first part of the first episode and, being a typical high school production, it fell far, far short of my expectations. We didn’t have a boom microphone, we used a handheld camcorder, and though spies and their enemies are supposed to wear suits, the majority of the “cast” didn’t own any, so they looked even more like high-schoolers. It was pretty discouraging, and of course there wasn’t anyone to blame but myself– I could’ve tried harder, at the very least, like making my own equipment and basically applying just a little bit more ingenuity.

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Not even my apartment block is safe from the sakura aesthetic.

Fast forwarding through the pity party, throughout college, though I also had opportunities to make more short films, I preferred to stay in the background in minor roles as I was afraid to truly step up to do anything creative. I occasionally still tried to write, but by this point I didn’t really have any good ideas anymore. I never finished a single script, and any plot outlines I had always ended in some twist. Although this can be used to great effect, a twist ending does NOT excuse the rest of the story from having to be written well, or meaningful. Also being at UCLA, home to one of the best film schools in the nation, I was even more intimidated seeing how talented some people were. What it boiled down to, was that growing up I was a big fish in a small pond. Now, at UCLA, I was a fish in an ocean. I couldn’t bear to find out that I wasn’t actually a big fish after all, that everyone who told me I was so promising growing up, was mistaken. Diagnose-happy people may call it Impostor Syndrome, but I never was worried about being exposed as a fraud, or something. I simply didn’t think I was talented.

I applied the same mentality to my career track, where I thought the business side of the entertainment industry would suit me better. Creativity may not be my strong suit, I thought, but I still want to be involved in making movies in some capacity. I worked as an assistant at a talent agency, and then at a film production company. I learned a lot about how things run, but I also learned that maybe this life wasn’t really for me. Long hours, low pay, and bad people abound. Assistants would swap stories on how their bosses look down on them in secret Facebook groups, and then at the very same time make threads like “intern fuck-up stories” where they would laugh at how stupid and incompetent interns are. Everyone sticks together as equals, but once they advance, they immediately turn around to look down on anyone below them. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth, and it made me want out. That ennui is what eventually led me to the JET Program.

The thrilling conclusion shall follow in part 2!

 

Japanese High School Graduation (and Uniforms)

The end of February? Sailor uniforms? Bowing 800 times? Yes, this is a Japanese high school graduation ceremony.

The Japanese school year starts in April, for some reason. Kids still get a block of summer vacation too, so they come to school for two months and then they’re gone for a month. Weird!

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This picture was not from the rehearsal, but as you can see it’s not my first time being taught bowing.

Anyways, because of that, high schoolers graduate at the end of February instead. Ours was on February 28, preceded by rehearsals the day before, because as my teacher put it, “practicing is very Japanese.” In said rehearsals, students were made to scream, jump up and down while singing the school’s alma mater, and practice standing up and sitting down at the right speed over and over. We teachers got to watch, but we also had to practice how to bow properly (hot tip: it’s a 40° tilt and 3-count).

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Flags left to right are: Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, school emblem.

Actual graduation was a very serious, somber affair. It was punctuated with speeches from many different adults, from the principal to the board of education chair to the head of the PTA association. These were all, at least from the sound of them, very dry, and often read straight off a paper. There definitely weren’t any jokes, or even snappy pop culture references. It’s probably better that way.

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Clockwise from left: boy’s uniform winter version, girl’s uniform winter version, summer version. The boy’s summer uniform is just a white shirt and dark khakis.

The students just wear their regular school uniform for graduation, without any pomp or circumstance. My school’s uniform is pretty much the most archetypal Japanese uniform you can get, the classic gakuran for boys and serafuku (sailor uniforms) for girls, whose names you may not know but will recognize immediately upon seeing them. Accessories include a Roman numeral pin attached to your collar (for men) or neckerchief (for women) to indicate your year. Buttons are engraved with the school crest. To me, they’re pretty stylish. To the kids, they’re not fans and they want the same uniforms as other high schools in the area, with blazers and sweaters and ties. Between early 20th-century sailor uniforms or the mid-20th century Ivy look, it really is a win-win.

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Back to graduation, a play-by-play: everyone files in, sans third-years (high school is only three years). We stand and sing the Japanese national anthem, “Kimi Ga Yo.” The principal gives a speech. Each time someone new comes on stage, everyone is to stand, bow for 3 counts, and sit down. The third years enter and take their seats in the front rows, to the tune of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” A little unfitting, if you ask me, but hey, I’m just a foreigner observing. The rest was a blur of speeches and bowing. The students don’t physically receive any diplomas. At least, not during the ceremony. Instead, their names are called one by one, they yell “hai” and stand up. The underclassmen representative gives a thank-you speech from the rest of the school. More speeches from more people, as mentioned before, and well, that’s it. We also sing the school’s alma matter and few other select songs. No graduating student goes up on stage. No laughter, no applause. Not until the very end as they exit (to “Sotsugyo Shashin”; Graduation Picture), and yes, there are at least tears. Now the audience and teachers will be clapping, for maybe four or five minutes straight. And… the end! These brave men and women are now out and about in the world, some to college, some to technical schools, others home to study for more entrance exams, and oh, the places they’ll go!

Staying in a Capsule Hotel

Nightlife in Japan is ruled by an incredibly powerful force, one that many seldom dare reckon with– the last train. If you miss your last train home, usually around midnight, the choices are slim: you can either take a taxi at exorbitant prices, or stay out, hopefully intoxicated, till the first train about 5 hours later. You could also get a hotel, but that’s a little too expensive for most people. $100 just for a bed to sleep in for 8 hours? No way!

Or, you could stay in a capsule hotel for about 1/3 of the price.

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Instead of rooms, capsule hotels are made up of individual Space-age-looking pods, essentially human-sized drawers containing nothing but a bed, and perhaps a small TV on the roof your capsule. A typical one measures maybe 6.5 feet (2m) long by 3 feet (1m) tall. There’s just barely enough room to sit up properly. Thanks to this, the use of space is incredibly efficient– what you see above is enough accommodation for 12 people!

There are communal bathrooms, as well as showers. Some extra-fancy capsule hotels will even have their own onsen (public baths). It’s really the perfect solution for a cheap and quick overnight stay– the one we were at, the Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi located in Amerikamura, Osaka, was only 3000 yen ($30) a night. The Asahi Plaza, by the way, was one of such hotels with an onsen. Nice!

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Common in Japan but uncommon in hotel lobbies, we had to take our shoes off at the front. In such situations, lockers are provided so the front doesn’t get so cluttered, and I suppose so people won’t steal your shoes. However, we had to surrender said locker keys to the front desk, and we’d have to ask for it back any time we needed our shoes. The only key we were given at check-in was for a locker to store our stuff in. These lockers were in a room separate from the capsules, on the first floor. Up to the second floor we went to find our capsules. Exciting!

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The second floor was essentially a series of hallways shooting off into capsule rooms. Each room contained about 16-20 capsules. Efficient!

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Interior view facing in, back of TV on the top left.

Lo and behold, my “room” for the night– surrounded by plastic, on top of a rather thin mattress pad. A small nozzle in the back blows heated air, which you can manually point or close but otherwise not control the temperature. Other amenities included a TV, control panel, shelf, some cubbies, a power outlet (had for an extra 400 yen/$4), and a mirror. I crawled inside, and was happy to find that there was enough room to turn around, albeit kind of scrunched on all fours. Spacious!

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Interior view facing out.

Rather than any type of door, you get a thin pull-down blind, kind of like a straw mat. That is all you get for security/privacy/noise-cancellation– there are no locks anywhere on or in the capsule. In fact, according to their website, “hotel industry law” dictates that locks are straight-up not allowed in capsules. I suppose that might put claustrophobics a little more at ease. Sensible!

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The control panel is of the same sort you might find at any hotel, but I included a picture for posterity’s sake. Functions include alarm clock set, TV on/off, radio on/off, lights, and, unlike most hotels, an “emergency button” on the bottom left, protected by a swing-out plastic cover to prevent accidental pressings. Sorry to say, I have no idea what it does. I imagine it either summons an employee to your capsule or launches it towards Rigel 7. Handy!

In conclusion, for its combination of novelty, price, and convenience, I’d absolutely do it again. And, before I forget to mention, it was about as comfortable as it looks– you’re not sleeping on a cloud, but it is perfectly adequate and I slept like the dead anyways. One might even say… like a body in a morgue :^)