The Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka

Two wrestlers enter the sumo ring. Together they might weigh as much as a BMW Isetta. They drink water from ceremonial cups, served to them by the last opponent they defeated. They throw salt in the ring to spiritually cleanse it. The judges signal they can start– but not yet, the match starts only when both wrestlers put both their fists on the ground, and the timing of that is completely up to them. There’s a lot of psyching out, feinting, and intimidation. They crouch, ready to clash, but then stand up again to the cheers of the crowd. They slap their bellies, stomp on the ground to drive bad spirits away, and some throw even more huge handfuls of salt to really be theatrical. This pre-match metagame is sometimes more intense than the match itself, which often last just a few seconds. This is, of course, sumo, and last-last weekend I took a trip to Fukuoka to watch Sumo Kyushu Basho, or the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, one of four annually around Japan.

Firstly, it was held in Fukuoka Kokusai (International) Center, and you know what’s cool about sumo? You sit on the floor! So Japanese!!!

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Get cozy! Featuring my friends Siseko and Jake.

There’s also chair seating, but those are in the very back rows. We instead opted for a “box seat,” where instead of buying individual seats, you have to buy the whole “box” of floor space and four cushions. The cost was a flat ¥46,400 ($427), regardless of whether one, two, three, or four people sit. These were the third-best seats, with the first being ringside, where you might actually get to experience a sumo wrestler falling on top of you, then the front row, then us.

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Grand champion Hakuhō (right) throws cleansing salt in the pre-match ritual– this was our view, no zoom!

Sumo tournaments run for about two weeks at a time, and every rikishi wrestles once each day. Their rank/division is determined by their win and loss record by the end of the tournament. Think of it as working the same as relegation in the English Premiere League, and the tournament being a squashed-together season. The current grand champion, or yokozuna, is actually a Mongolian rikishi named Hakuhō. This elusive rank has been given to less than 100 people since 1630!! Adding on to the fun, sumo tournaments start around 8 in the morning, with the low-tier divisions going first, up till 6pm when you get to see the grand champion himself!

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Hakuhō (center, white loincloth) performs his ring-entrance ceremony.

There’s just so many neat things I really like about sumo. While I can’t claim to be a super-fan (nor can I with soccer, despite my many references to it thus far), I think that in sport there is beauty in simplicity. When there are so much fewer rules, then you must strive for absolute perfection in every little aspect. Two ways to lose– be pushed out of the ring, or touch the floor with anything but your feet. Despite this, there are over 82 recognized ways to win a sumo bout, which is included in the referee decision at the end as well as statistically tracked. There’s also, amazingly enough, a few foreign sumo wrestlers, the top division having a few dudes from Mongolia, and then Georgia and Bulgaria. Especially impressive because they are required to be fluent in Japanese, take a Japanese name, and live the entire sumo lifestyle.

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At the lowest, makushita, divison. Note how the referee’s robes only go to his knees.

We got to Kokusai Center around noon because of quite a night the night before, which’ll follow in part two. The stadium was nearly empty for the makushita division, the third-highest and the lowest featured at Kyuushu Basho. Even the wrestlers looked smaller. The gyōji (referees), whose outfits change from tier to tier, are barefoot and their robes a lot less elaborate. Compared to the top division, it seemed like the bouts lasted a little longer on average, as well as a LOT less pre-match feinting. It also seemed a lot less serious; there was one particular bout where the wrestlers were just staring each other down, and the gyōji yelled out something that sounded like “Wake up!” which even got some laughs from the crowd.

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Hideki Imaoka, currently the only active sumo ref at the top division. Credit goes to Ogiyoshishan of Flickr.

Yet another just absolutely badass thing about sumo– the gyōji at the topmost rank, called tate-gyōji, carry daggers in their belt to signify their willingness to commit suicide if they make the wrong decision. But as a perk, they DO get more elaborate robes, as well as wearing tabi socks and zōri straw sandals instead of barefoot. From what I’ve read, though, they don’t actually need to commit suicide if they make a wrong call, and no one has done it in modern history. At the current time there is only one referee/gyōji at this level, named Hideki Imaoka.

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At jūryō, the second-tier division. Still fairly empty in the stands.

Anyways, the Center didn’t start getting packed until around the afternoon, near the end of the second-tier jūryō and the beginning of the top-tier division, makuuchi. One of the first things that happens is all 42 wrestlers of makuuchi file in, wearing banners made by their sponsors. They bow one by one as they are introduced, make a circle around the sumo ring, clap, pull up on their banners, and raise their hands to the air. Perhaps calling the attention of the gods to bring prosperity to their sponsors?

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On the very right is Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (Levan Gorgadze), from Georgia, one of seven foreign rikishi in the makuuchi division.

In the same vein, before every bout a few attendants will circle around the ring holding up the match sponsors’ banners. Another small TERRIBLY interesting point– the rikishi are referred to west vs. east, rather than left vs. right. Seeing as each makuuchi wrestler wrestles 15 times, if their wins outnumber their losses, they’ll be promoted within the division. And vice versa, they may be demoted, or perhaps even relegated (at least I assume they would be). Simple, simple!

There was so much that went on, compounded with my bad habit of writing blog posts WAY after the fact, that it’s difficult to me to lay out what happened chronologically, so a few highlights:

  • Finding that slapping is allowed, as well as open-palm thrusts. Some matches were basically just giant slap-fests, so intense that the sounds echoed across the stadium.
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  • Seeing Yuta Tomokaze get injured falling out of the ring, and being taken away in an (admittedly, comically large) wheelchair. In fact, it was pretty strange. After he fell out of the ring, he didn’t get up. It took a few minutes of confused silence before anyone even came to help (and they didn’t look like paramedics), and even then Tomokaze mostly had to get up by himself. It looked like he either broke or dislocated his leg in the fall from the ring. Luckily, not career-ending, but he did have to withdraw from the tournament.

The final match of the day, which on this one was Hakuhō versus Hayato Daieisho, happened around 6pm. It was actually over in less than a few seconds: the refereed decision was Daieisho won by oshi-dashi, or by simply pushing his opponent out of the ring. And wow, the grand champion had lost! Now it is day 12 of the tournament, and Hakuhō is currently 11-1. So we were privileged enough to witness his only loss thus far. Wow! If this had been the last day, and Hakuhō had lost the match, there’s a tradition of the crowd straight-up picking up their and throwing their cushions at the ring. This also kick-ass practice was banned 11 years ago, but people still do it, Shinto Buddha bless them.

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And lastly, the day’s action is concluded with yet another ceremony, this one called yumitori-shiki. A wrestler from the makushita division twirls a huge bamboo bow in the air and sweeps the ground with it to even further drive away bad spirits and cleanse the ring.

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Asanoyama on the right, his attendant on the left. He weighs over 171 kg (376 lb), while I clock in at about 78 kg (172 lb).

Coming away from the tournament, you (slash no one) may be wondering, “But Patrick, who is your favorite wrestler after all?” And of course, I’d have to respond “Why, it’s the world fourth-ranked Hideki Asanoyama!” because of all the wrestlers we ran into outside, he was nice enough to let me take a picture with him. Now, I’m a fan for life!

 

 

 

Travels Thus Far: Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle was built in 1333. Since then, it has never been burned down, and it survived the bombings of World War II, even as the city of Himeji himself was leveled twice, leaving it as one of only twelve “original” castles left in Japan. Apparently, at one point over 5,000 existed. Fret not, the Allies did not destroy exactly 4,988 castles. A lot of them were lost in, you know, regular war between shogunates in Japan back when that was en vogue, and utterly bizarrely, many were just straight-up intentionally destroyed as part of the Meiji Restoration, that period of modernization following Japan’s opening itself to the world again. Then, though yours truly has visited the area and park several times, this past Saturday was the first time that I actually went inside the castle.

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First off, the way up the castle is winding and rather steep– a way to force attackers to have to take as convoluted a route as possible, while at the whole time keeping them in clear/open sight from inside the castle. Those holes you see in different shapes are sama, their being different shapes for different ways to shoot at invaders: oblong for bows and round/triangular/square for different types of guns. I wonder if way back when, Tanaka-Samurai ever tried to fire a blunderbuss out of a arquebus hole or something and his friends made fun of him all day at work the next day. Just another day at the office!

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Said ventilation windows are on the right.

I also forgot to mention that Himeji Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. The all-wood interior is still intact, and you have to take your shoes off before traversing up all six floors to the top. Which, by the way, you are given a plastic bag for to carry in until you reach the other end, a pretty common practice in shrines, temples, and other such historical places. Even inside, you can still see how invader-centric the construction and layout is. Stairs are very steep and narrow, and there’s even rooms with “high windows” designed for the express purpose of allowing gun smoke to escape should there ever be such a melee. I hit my head on a low ceiling going up one of the floors, so I guess that’s where I would’ve died had I been invading. Much better than my unfortunate friend Stanzi, who had foolishly stopped to take a picture around one of the sama holes. Well, I did too, but I was much more ninja-esque about it of course.

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It’s finally cooling down from summer in Japan, so that may have contributed, but there was just amazingly refreshing, constant wind flow through the windows at the very top. It was definitely a lot more pleasant a temperature compared to outside, and I find it really fascinating to think about how things like summer climates affect architecture and building design, as well as what passive/electricity-less solutions existed before A/C was invented, such as the windcatcher towers of the Middle East. Re: the other point, older Japanese apartments and schools, for example, all doors directly communicate with large sliding, screen-less windows to create channels for airflow. I really couldn’t tell what exactly made the air so refreshing in the castle aside from us being so high up, but I’m sure there was more to it than just there coincidentally being a breeze that day.

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The interior was, again, all-wood, and pretty barren. Obviously, none of the original furniture or whatever else that may have decorated the inside remains. Just a lot of big, flat, empty wooden rooms. I really do wonder what this castle would’ve looked like in its heyday– there’s just so much usable space. What were the entertainment rooms like? What would most of the castle rooms have in them/be used for anyways? The only relic that remained was an incredibly well-preserved flat screen TV.

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One of the only rooms I saw for whose purpose was obvious was this armory.

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Another, located in the “west bailey”, another section of the castle devoted to living quarters, contained the only tatami room to be seen, and this very creepy statue of Princess Sen, famous resident and wife of the original owner of the castle, Honda Tadatoki.

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Besides the history, the castle is also amazing from an architectural standpoint. Above is the interior framework of the castle. And also, did you know, Japanese castles are built without nails? Instead, they’re completely made out of interlocking wooden beams. If I’m not mistaken, it was borne out of necessity because the quality of Japanese metal was pretty poor. I must admit, high quality woodwork is a lot more impressive than high quality metal… existing.

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I also wondered what the actual surrounding area of the castle would’ve looked like in its time, and there was a nice miniature scale model to answer that question, and a map as well. Neat!

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Anyways, at the very top floor of the castle had been a small shrine, which I totally forgot to take a picture of. It was apparently moved from somewhere else on site. For modern times, our tour ended with the prospect of making a wish to the protector of Himeji Castle, who’d kept it safe for nearly 700 years. In less modern times, who knows what awaited a plucky samurai who managed to make it past the moat, gunports, stairs, and ambush rooms and made it to the top?

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A Japanese Disaster Drill

A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.

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“Everyone’s dead, hooray!”

 

It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.

After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.

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Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.

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After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!

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Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!

Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!

* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.

Undotaikai: Japanese Sports Day II

Read about last year’s Sports Day here!

Since I’m here a second year, I also got to experience my second undōtaikai, or Sports Day, which, by far, has been my favorite Japanese high school tradition I’ve experienced. From the students marching in to military cadence, to 40-student dance routines choreographed completely amongst themselves, it’s an entire day filled with spectacle, fun, aesthetic, and of course sports. I’m also glad that I can finally give it proper justice, as ours occurred just less than a week ago while last year’s post had been written nearly two weeks after the fact.

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Clockwise from top left: red team, yellow, white, and blue.

Sports Day kicks off around 9 AM with the student council members marching onto the track with the flags of Japan, of Hyogo prefecture, and of the school itself. The entire school is divided into four teams– for us, it was red, yellow, white, and blue, and each team is made up of at least one or two classes from each of the three grades. They all, of course, sport matching bandanas and flags made by the classes themselves. Everyone lines up in formation, and the principal opens the event with a speech. We all rise for the national anthem as the same three flags from earlier are raised on their poles.

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Note: the color on the back of their PE shirts indicate their years, not teams. First-years are red, second-years green, and third-years blue.

Following that is rajio taisō, or radio calisthenics, all done in unison. It’s to this exact track and this exact sequence, of a man counting with some classical-sounding piano music in the background. You’ll find that military discipline will be a common theme running throughout the event– and speaking of running, there will be a LOT of relay races throughout the day. I still have no idea whatsoever how the brackets work, how points are calculated, or in fact, anything at all about this event that I’m supposed to be explaining to you. I just know there’s a lot of moving around involved.

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I’m the black blur passing all the pathetically slow tiny schoolgirls.

The first few events are regular baton-passing relay races. There’s also mixed relay where for the first 50 meters, they have to skip rope while running, for the next crawl under a net, carry a heavy sandbag, and finally link up with five other students for an epic six-legged race finale. There’s also teachers versus students, which I got to run 50 meters in. I was told that it would be at 3 PM, but when I went to the bathroom around 2ish PM a teacher came running up to me to tell me that the schedule has suddenly changed and I have to run NOW. I was passed the baton pretty much as soon as I got to the track– it sums up what it’s like to be a JET/ALT pretty well, in that last-minute changes and heads-ups will be the bane of your professional life. In fact, the official motto of the Japanese school-ALT relations is “Haha WHOOPS!”

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Before lunch is the dance competition, for which the third-years from each team has prepared their own choreographies to their own chosen playlists, performed in their own chosen matching outfits. I thought red was the clear winner, and naturally I was so mesmerized I didn’t take any pictures or videos of it. The music is usually a mix of J-pop and American pop, though re: Western music I feel like Japan is just around a decade behind. Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” showed up twice. And nightclubs here still play “Shots” by LMFAO really often.

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Anyways, now it’s lunch time. On special school-wide event days like this, the school will have bento lunches delivered to the office. So here’s what a typical, but also slightly fancier, school lunch looks like. Tempura and rice, just arranged more aesthetically than usual.

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After lunch, each of the club activities (sports) teams march onto the track in their uniform, from aikido to basketball to kendo to table tennis. The sports teams also competed against each other in relays, in uniform. Track & field obviously won, although soccer did sometimes come close. The worst runners were the martial artists, but that was mostly due to their uniforms. Since they were so clearly last in every race, they would put on a little demonstration after each lap, like flipping their teammate over with a judo throw as a way of passing off the baton. Pretty cool.

After putting to rest the age-old debate of whether track & field kids really can run fast, the students then change back to their regular PE clothes and now the non-relay stuff (interspersed with more relays) begin!

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Tug-of-war with ship’s rope. The team that manages to knock the flag down toward their side is the winner. This one’s one of the few co-ed events.

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For some reason a girls’-only event, it’s the return of tug-of-pole. Nine large metal poles lie in the middle of the field. When the starting pistol fires, two teams run onto the field and fight each other over them. Once a pole is taken past their own team’s side/endzone, the people who won that pole are free to run back onto the field to help with the stealing of another. This would have been even more badass if they somehow combined it with kendo, or maybe incorporating land mines and robots in some way.

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Kiba-sen (cavalry fight), which I had mentioned before, but now I have slightly better pictures. Three boys form a horse, one sits atop as a rider, and he either wants to knock his opponent off his horse, push his horse out of bounds, or snatch his opponent’s hat off inside a very small (maybe 6 feet/2 meters across) circular ring. Teachers stand all around to catch anyone in case they fall. Besides running in the teacher’s relay, it was the only other time I felt like I was actually part of the event. Everything looks so fun you can’t help but want to participate in all of it.

There is no grand finale, really. The final event is the final relay race. But again, I have no idea how the heck the whole thing works. Every team participated in every event; it didn’t look like there was any elimination, and I noticed the same students doing multiple events regardless of whether they had won or lost the previous ones. During the ending ceremony, during which all teams line up again in formation, and sit on the field, the student council announced the team winner of each single individual event. There were so many winner announcements that I really, truly, have no idea who actually won overall. I know, this is not Sports’ Day’s fault. I just don’t speak Japanese. It probably is an accumulated-points system. Either way, I asked the next day and it turns out white team won. Nice!

 

 

Looking Back on a Year of JET

It’s been exactly 20 days since the anniversary of my first arriving at my apartment in Akashi to begin the JET Program. In that time– you know, I spent a long time sitting and staring at the screen, wondering what highlights to put to make it sound like I’ve had the experience of a lifetime in Japan. You know, “in that time, I’ve loved and lost, danced the night away in the neon streets of Dotonburi, watched the sun set over the hills of the origin of the world, and made relationships with people whom I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Even then, I had to try really hard to make it sound like I really made the most of my time here. I didn’t. I also didn’t love and lose either,  just wanted to sound poetic. But I still enjoyed this year more than any other out of my entire life. Instead of another wall of text let’s make a list of more things I’ve learned about myself, and about Japan, in my 365+ days here:

  1. Nobody uses soap. Ever since I first noticed a teacher not wash his hands with soap after using the bathroom (rather just running water over their fingers for a few seconds), I can’t stop noticing it among everybody– in train stations, bars, homes, everywhere. It’s the exception rather than the norm to see someone actually use soap when washing their hands. Some bathrooms, like at temples or older train stations, don’t even have hand soap at all. Why not have a bottle there, it’ll last years anyways.
  2. Japan can still be pretty dirty. For example, our school, over three decades old, has probably never been deep-cleaned aside from the daily dry-broom-pushing from the students. The toilets, including the teachers’, are also cleaned by the students, but that is done probably once a month or less. And since students clean them, well, how thorough and diligent would you be about school toilet cleaning if you were 14 years old? A lot of places are like this, with the idea that they are “ritually” clean (outside shoes have never made it in) rather than literally clean. Some districts, especially the nightlife ones, are absolutely filthy come morning time, with trash strewn all over the street. Nevertheless, outside of these old buildings or happening places, are still just as the stereotype of Japan is. Kirei!
  3. I still can’t speak Japanese. Immersion helps a lot, but I have been too lazy all the time. I was hoping to make JLPT N3 by this last July, but, well, I have no excuse other than that I’m worthless. I can mostly order at restaurants, but I’m hopeless in any kind of conversation.
  4. I have barely traveled at all. All the blog posts in the Travel category is actually all the travel I’ve done, with the exception of Kyoto. I have no good reasons for why I haven’t done it. Various things have kept me lashed to the Hyogo area, and although I know I won’t be here forever, I got settled in and comfortable pretty quickly. That shall change this year.
  5. Students are still incredibly well-behaved. The “worst” in-class behavior I ever witnessed was a group of boys who would purposely be out of sync/louder than everyone else when the class was repeating after me from the textbook. That’s it.

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    Elementary school visit with ESS (English Speaking Society) Club.
  6. I still feel the same about teaching. Before JET I had only the barest minimum of experience– just a few weeks here and there of volunteering. But when I did do it, I always enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough that being in a teaching position has never made me nervous. A year later, I have a better grasp of what activities to do in class that work with the kids, and of what doesn’t, but my core approach still hasn’t changed: be confident, make the kids like you, and try your best to make English fun.
  7. I still feel the same about Japan. Studying at Osaka University in the summer of 2014, being in Japan for the first time ever, was one of the highlights of my college career and indeed life. As I said in my personal statement for JET, hokey as it is, “I was awed by people’s friendliness, by the culture of mutual respect, and a rich history that spans thousands of years.” I still see evidence of it every single day.
  8. Without language, you’ll never know people’s true feelings. Of course, people hide their true feelings all the time, in all cultures. There are people who put on a public face and hide what they are really thinking and feeling, to the detriment of themselves and of forming potential intimate relationships. In Japan, it is widespread and prescribed as the correct course of action, as the two concepts are very clearly defined, named as honne (what you are really thinking) and tatemae (what you present to society, in order to preserve its harmony).
    Social interactions are all about “getting the hint.” For example, there is a teacher who I know for a fact dislikes me. Though they teach classes with me, they avoid speaking with me as much as possible, so I do my part to also avoid putting them in such a situation– for example, volunteering to go unlock the classroom first and wait for them there, so we don’t have to walk together. Before this, there had been a lot of subtle signs that I wasn’t able to pick up until a few months in, to be able to unequivocally conclude that they are not a fan of me.
  9. Even with language, you probably might never know people’s true feelings. After all, the concept of honne and tatemae reaches beyond merely a language barrier. It is a way of life and a way of keeping society running, in a collectivist nation where 98% of the people are Japanese. Even with Japanese friends who speak very good English, it’s really difficult to ever get them to admit anything negative.
  10. Many friendships are fleeting. I’m not just talking about with Japanese people. Being in a big, unfamiliar place, people tend to stick together with people like them, in order to feel safe, secure, and socially supported. You see this when first moving into the college dorms, or during study abroad programs. People are brought together by the context and excitement of where they are, which is why I feel you’ll often find yourself hanging out with people in Japan, Italy, Peru, or wherever that back home, you usually don’t hang out with or even get along with. I am fully aware that many people I meet here, I will probably never see again upon leaving this country. Nevertheless, I am always searching for genuine, deep emotional connections, but having a fun night out with strangers and acquaintances is always fun too.
  11. Foreigners are still foreigners. Being from America, many of my students, and people at large, may still think of me as a Westerner. Japanese people have occasionally still expressed surprise that I am so deft at using chopsticks, or that I am capable of sitting seiza, on top of your legs tucked under you. They don’t seem to realize that Asian cultures still share a lot of similarities.
  12. I’m glad I came here with more experience. Most JETs come straight out of college, and with that, I feel that among some there is a sense of entitlement and the idea that “the world should conform to ME!” It is a common complaint that we have to work during the summer, even when there is no class. We still get paid, yet people either want to get paid for not working, or pass up on free money by getting summer vacation like the students. Coming from a hustle-and-bustle, fast-paced industry as Hollywood, I’m incredibly thankful for how lenient this job can be. Yet, for many it’s still not enough. Complaints abound of working too much, working too little, or even about being so strictly expected to arrive on time.
  13. Coming here at all, and then recontracting, are two decisions I have zero regrets about. Though I still vaguely worry about what to do after this program, I am happier than I’ve ever been before. I don’t dread waking up in the morning– perhaps for the commute, yes, but for the actual job, not at all. I’m wholly satisfied with the work-life balance, of the workload, and the amount of interaction I get to have with the students. I only wish I could travel more, but that could be fixed at any time. I certainly have the freedom to.

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. It is on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, pretty much smack-dab in the middle between Himeji to the west and Kobe to the east.

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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!