Posts Tagged ‘Tsu’

Much to My Chagrin

2012年 9月 6日

Every March, when the school year comes to a close, it is common to receive trophies, letters, or other presentations from the students. Sometimes spontaneous movement of the children’s hearts prompts it. Other times, teachers assign it to get pupils to unwittingly practice their language arts skills. Regardless of origin they are always enjoyable to read: first, because they are moving; and second, because they are cute.

Definitely, children say the darndest things and one sadness is that I can’t afford to store all the cards, letters, and presents for posterity: partly for fire safety reasons.

Last Spring, at one of my favorite schools, each second grade class had a representative write a letter for everyone. Instructions from the teacher indicated that group opinion – rather than personal – should be expressed. I included one letter here from a boy who couldn’t resist slipping in a sentence about his regrettable memory from my class. He placed it in the middle and the teacher, busy wrapping up the school year, didn’t catch it; but we had some laughs when I showed it to her.


Dear Erik, thank you for always teaching us so much more than English, like pronunciation and many other things. Your slightly ‘unconventional’ games are also very fun. “Recently when we played the board game, much to my chagrin, I came in fourth.” When you read picture books to us we really enjoy it. Everyone feels that when we play games or you read to us, those are the most enjoyable times. From Second grade, class 1


Flautist Again

2012年 8月 1日

My father-in-law has two main hobbies: one is pottery and the other is playing the shakuhachi (尺八). Almost exactly four years ago he started teaching me how to play. Almost exactly three years ago I was hit by a car while cycling. One of the saddest parts of that was how it knocked a lot of the creativity and inspiration out of me. After that I put the instrument down for a long time and took care of other, less creative things; however, this week – mostly thanks to my kitten – the shakuhachi is back in my hands.

Monday I made sure I could still make sounds and then practiced the basic notes. Tuesday I ran through several fingering exercises and played one song. Today I practiced all the fingering exercises and played a couple songs. Running out of breath and getting dizzy is the most significant trouble right now. One small problem is that my soul patch is too bushy and makes it hard to keep the instrument in the right location. Judicious use of scissors will correct the small problem. Hopefully daily practice will correct the other.

Two Straight Years of Increase

2012年 2月 17日

A title like this could be a sign for hope, if only the increase in question were something positive. Arriving at school this morning I found a memo addressed to all the Principals in Tsu regarding traffic accidents for Board of Education employees. The year ending March 31st, 2010 had the fewest reported accidents over a four year period at 62 incidents. Last year shot up to 95 incidents making it a record year, but a short-lived record. The purpose of the memo was to highlight the fact that figures through the first ten months of this year show 104 incidents, on pace for more than 120.

Following their typical pattern, the memo explains the trouble which will be caused by this trend and makes an appeal to change the problem. As usual their worry is not what people with common sense would focus on and there is no constructive evaluation of why the problem is occurring nor how to affect the desired improvement, merely a demand that the situation improve. Rather than concern about safety, increased costs to the school system, insurance problems, etc. the concern expressed in the memo is that students and guardians will have trouble trusting the Board of Education.

Since the change is so extreme – doubling in two years – I am very curious about the cause, and think it would be instructive in the process of reducing accidents. Has there been an increase in off-site business activities which increased the number of kilometers traveled? Has something increased the number of solo trips or trips using individuals’ vehicles? Has there been a change in time pressure applied by Principals?

While this problem is not pleasant, it actually does not come as a surprise since I often see dangerous activities and try to address them at the schools. In one case, I was almost struck by a Principal leaving a parking space without looking. I really wanted to discuss this incident; however, the Principal never mentioned it at all and I was afraid to bring it up myself since I felt his action was unacceptable. Generally, my observation is that our Board of Education is amply staffed with people who feel they are exemplary; hence there is little chance for honest discussion about improvement.

Riding My Stocking Stuffer

2012年 1月 17日

Little behind the times perhaps, but here is a little Christmas update for the second half of January.

Japanese children sometimes get a visit from Santa, but it is not universal; which makes talking about Christmas a little tricky sometimes. Talking about Santa visiting the “good kids” is not a part of my discussions since, many good little kids in Japan don’t receive a present and I don’t want to be the source of their trauma. Also of note is that children who receive a present generally get only one. For the most part, children in Japan are curious to talk about the little fur-clad elf so December conversations are a lot of fun.

Also in Japan it is very rare for adults to receive Christmas gifts. When I show my stocking which I’ve used for 40 years, people are shocked – and sometimes upset – to hear that I am expecting gifts yet again this year. Not just one of course, but an overflowing stocking full of them.

Christmas morning, I started wondering about my position on the good kids list since my stocking was far from overflowing. My wife however is clearly in good standing with the jiggly-bellied one as her stocking was packed full and had various packages littered beneath it which clearly would not fit inside.

First impressions can be misleading, as I found while burrowing into my stocking. Three presents and an envelope revealed themselves: a book, two chocolate bars, and a note from Santa. As far as my recollection, this is the first time Nicholas has taken the time to put pen to paper for me. Getting to the bottom of his kindly prose, I found a message telling me he had stowed one more item in the back of our micro-van. Much to my amazement it was one of the three items I had been hoping for (but never expecting)… a unicycle.

My Flamingo has to be the largest stocking stuffer to date. Actually this is a present I have hoped for, going on 26 years, since I worked in Development at IBM San Jose. But, that is another story…

Being Found

2011年 10月 24日

Living an hour away from work is terribly inconvenient, so I moved back to Tsu; but, sometimes it has it’s advantages. Being a teacher to two thousand students can often make one feel like a rock star. When I go out shopping or dining, it is common to be spotted by someone who knows me. Generally I am OK with being spotted and even greeted for a short conversation; however, when things get closer to home privacy becomes an issue.

We chose a home that is two minutes from one of my schools which guarantees that I will be discovered by my students. Even so, my hope was to delay that discovery as long as possible. Having kids showing up at strange times wanting attention could get tiring. Although I could walk to this school, I go as far as to ride my bike so when the students see me, they might think I was riding from the station as I did before.

My first time being seen was putting out the plastic recycle a couple weeks ago. For some reason I have to walk half a kilometer to put out recyclable trash. Two students walking to school were heading straight toward me, and their eyes went wide as saucers when they realized who I was. I greeted them politely – as I would if we met in the hall at school – and continued on. I returned to the house on a different street, hoping the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ saying carries some truth. One of them is very clever and I guess some wheels have been turning in her mind.

Meeting my wife at the nearest grocery store also resulted in my being identified, but even when I was living in Ise, I would sometimes poke in their after work, so I don’t think this outed me.

Behind our house is a narrow rice field. On the other side of the rice field is the back of a “maisonette”, which I would translate as townhome. Basically there are four little back yards visible from where we park and dry our laundry. One family has three cute and generally well-behaved children who help hang out their laundry. Several times I have observed them working away and thought what a desirable family they have. Well, Saturday they became my official third sighting.

I was hanging out our laundry and suddenly I heard my name in an exclamatory tone. The oldest daughter is one of my third graders and the son is a first grader. He was the one who spotted me. Sunday morning we could hear all sorts of excited chatter coming in our kitchen window. Even though I hadn’t been outside, the boy kept running to the back yard, pointing across the rice field and announcing my presence. I will teach his class on Wednesday this week and his sister on Friday. I guess at least two hundred of my students will be aware of my location by the end of the week.

International Japan

2011年 10月 18日

Many people have an image of Japan as being very genetically uniform. Very few people not of Japanese descent ever become citizens of Japan; however, that is not to say there are no foreigners living in Japan. My prefecture actually has a high number of resident aliens. Many workers come here to support factories and also the fishing industry; both of which are substantial here.

Today our city newsletter on human rights circulated to my desk. One chart shows a breakdown of mother tongues of foreign students in our elementary and junior high schools.

  • 53% Portuguese
  • 15% Spanish
  • 14% Tagalog
  • 6% Chinese
  • 2% Pashto
  • 2% Visayan
  • 8% Other

 Languages falling in the ‘other’ category include:

  • Indonesian
  • Mongolian
  • English
  • Malaysian
  • French
  • Vietnamese
  • Korean
  • Urdu
  • Arabic

There are more than 300 students speaking each of these 15 languages as their mother tongue. Our city provides staff at these schools to support these children and their families. At the school facilities students are given extra instruction in Japanese, a bit of counseling and international exchange activities. Most of the students, having young flexible minds, come up to speed within a year or two and the amount of support required declines rapidly. Translation of communications between schools and families; however, becomes an ongoing concern. Parents are much less likely to achieve language proficiency for various reasons, but need to be informed of many logistical issues in order to work smoothly with the schools.

Note that more than half of our foreign students are speakers of Portuguese. Japan has a long history with Brazil and many Japanese people have emigrated to Brazil over a long period. In many cases it is very easy for Brazilians to gain residency because they have Japanese grandparents (or other ancestors). At our international exchange events there is no shortage of South American influence.

So, while Japan does not have the mixed background of America, there are many countries represented here.

Run for the Hills

2011年 10月 6日

March 11th brought disaster upon Japan. Now, in response, we are having a lot of disaster drills. Living on a large bay, there is some possibility of tsunami here; however, even the most conservative models show that we can’t get a terribly large one here. Regardless of that, we are running around preparing for “the big one”.

Today we will have a tsunami drill for the case where our three story concrete building is not substantial enough. We will evacuate the building, gather on the grounds, and then head for the next building. Not sure if this is the best plan considering that some of the children who perished in the disaster had evacuated to their school grounds and were waiting there when the tsunami came.

Anyhow, the drill will start in 10 minutes. We have been planning this for weeks; which begs the question: is it really a preparedness drill if we all have a schedule?

Update – The time between the earthquake warning alarm and getting all the children into the adjacent building was over 20 minutes. If the earthquake is a long way away, maybe this is acceptable, but this idea of moving us to a different building seems like a recipe for disaster.

On the positive side, they made it very clear that the most important thing was to protect yourself. They warned about the possibility of broken glass, light fixtures falling, damaged buildings.

However, we moved to the other building and took time to remove our shoes and put them neatly in shoe lockers. This delayed our entry significantly and left the children stocking footed or barefooted. On normal days, if children take off their shoes the teachers warn them it is very dangerous (could be a loose thumbtack or something on the floor); but, after an earthquake we aren’t worried?

Now to figure out how to address my concerns properly with the chain of authority (in which I am the last link).

Silly Boys

2011年 10月 4日

My Tuesday school is a special place. Everyday there are special things happening here. Sometimes when I say special, I mean the difficult and frustrating variety; however, even in those cases amusing things float to the surface.

Just after fourth period began, one of the administrators stood up in the office and looked across the playground exclaiming, “What’s that?” They asked, “Is there a student out there?”

A small child was crouched down in the grass by the sandpile brought in to level the playing field for sports day. We identified the student and she hollered out at him to no avail. As she headed out for a direct interaction, we observed the activity from inside.

He seemed like a kitten prowling around, crouching, pouncing and suddenly – as if to sell this image further – a second playmate came flying in from a distance, nearly running headlong into his friend. The two boys continued scampering around after a grasshopper, including leaping vainly up a wall far higher than their heads. Eventually their awareness that they were being approached came to them and they ran off behind the storage shed.

Once they were corralled, scolded and back in class, I aksed what they were doing. My co-worker uses a very hard to follow dialectical pattern of speaking, but I think I caught the message.

Apparently during third period they were learning about how people used to catch grasshoppers and eat them for their nutritional value, so they set about catching one… Not sure if they planned to eat it or not…

Cycling Safely in Japan

2011年 9月 29日

Just over two years ago, I was taken off my bike by a car on a safe little back road. In my Mie prefecture, safety for bikes and pedestrians is not a given, we must be very alert and responsible for our own safety. Not only drivers’ habits, but also physical conditions here are different: awareness of those differences is critical.

On my morning commute, one of these came to the forefront as an Audi pilot repeatedly did her best to scrape me off on a stone wall. Fortunately, I foiled her efforts so I can bring my tale to you.

We were on a road with a clearly marked centerline and lines demarking a shoulder area. By American standards this road is narrow; however, there is plenty of width for a car to easily travel between the lines. The shoulder area is also wide enough for even an amateur cyclist to ride without trouble (although there are a few sign posts and power poles obstructing the shoulder, requiring forays into the roadway). Traffic was heavy and halting, so with little effort a bicycle is swifter than the cars which creates interaction and hence risk. I always enjoy roads where bikes and cars are moving at the same rate, minimizing reaction, but we all know that is the rare case: congested areas favor the bike; and open areas favor the power of the engine.

As I was passing by crawling cars, one driver repeatedly swerved into the shoulder as I was attempting pass, with her final move to the edge as she braked for the red light. Eliminating the suggestion that the driver was maliciously seeking revenge (an extremely rare occurrence here) my assumption is that the driver was not looking at her passenger side mirror nor making head checks. I protected myself by braking each time, which a cyclist should always be prepared to do (the car always wins in an accident).

Understanding why this happens helps to alleviate some of the frustration, if not the fear. Many Japanese roads – especially in the more countryside areas – are very narrow. Many times in our city, there are roads on which opposing traffic can’t pass without someone leaving the roadway. As a result, people are taught to pull to the outside edge of the road whenever possible. This practice becomes habit, with many drivers continuously using the shoulder as part of their lane regardless of how much free space there is on the road. These drivers are obvious, but this morning’s driver is the more cautionary situation. Something – perhaps brake lights on the car ahead – were, I assume, triggering her response of pulling to the side of the road when stopping.

While looking for drivers suddenly entering the roadway from the left, don’t forget to watch for drivers suddenly veering left from the roadway.

Closer to Zero

2011年 9月 26日

Ideal commute time is zero minutes. While I am at work, my time is being used and I am being paid for it. When I am commuting, I am spending my time getting to work, but no other compensation is forthcoming. Given my choice in the matter, I would have a job where that time was eliminated or greatly reduced.

For two and a half years I chose to live in Ise for personal reasons even though my work is in Tsu. Our circumstances that pulled me to Ise vanished suddenly on April 1st and I set about contriving to get back to Tsu. September 17th – amidst a downpour – a moving company arrived in the morning and hauled our personal belongings to Tsu.

Before the move, whether going by train or by car, I needed to leave about 7:15 to comfortably arrive at my workplace by 8:30. Doing some simple math shows that two and a half hours of my precious time was vanishing in the commute. This morning, facing my longest commute from the new house, I left at 8:10 and arrived precisely at 8:30. Further, I hope to learn a more direct route which will drop it to less than 15 minutes with luck. Friday’s commute should take less than one minute by bicycle.

It has only been about a week, but the luxury of sleep is already greatly appreciated. My calligraphy study has also improved and I am able to do a lot more around the house.

Already there are several posts I want to make, but they require a lot of photo uploading so they may have to wait for my new internet connection (October 6th, hopefully). Looking forward to communicating here.