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Danger!!! Conburnable!!!

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

Japan is chock full of abysmal, albeit often amusing bits of English. Even after two years here I still chuckle to myself when I throw away my “conburnable” garbage at Starbucks, or when I’m munching on my favorite “thin wheat crackers with wheat.” The past six months of teaching elementary school has been the best place to observe foreign English, with its poor grammar, comical spelling, and often pure indecipherability. The children run around wearing clothes with English they may never understand. The best are those that use correct English yet leave me completely baffled as to why the phrase ended up on a child’s t-shirt at all.

I like the political activist spirit of this shirt: “People demand freedom of speech to compensate for the freedom of thought they seldom use.” When I told the third grader wearing this that I liked it he looked down and seemed surprised that there was indeed English on the shirt. I wonder how many years will pass before he ponders his freedom of anything.

A sixth grade girl’s shirt states “Achieve girlish shyness: TOP PRIORITY.” I looked at her and she giggled into her hand, blushed, and turned away. Mission accomplished. Most girl’s shirts talk about being cute and happy, but some are slightly too suggestive by U.S. standards. For example one fourth grader’s shirt boldly states that she’s “Slammin’” and “(I got jiggy with it).” Another states that “Girl’s pop funny” which wouldn’t be as strange if it weren’t boldly written on a fifth grade boy’s shirt. I will say no more.

Then there are the references to drugs and alcohol. My favorite by far was a third grade boy’s shirt stating that “I am not a heavy drinker”. Phheww! And the pot references abound. In a country with low drug use, the pot leaf doesn’t really express anything but cool. My girlfriend has never taken an illegal drug in her life but has about twenty pot leaf air fresheners hanging from her steering wheel. So if it’s cool for adults, it must be cool for kids too, right? Enter “Back Alley Fashion”…for kids! No joke. Initially it was the pot leaves on kid’s clothes that drew my attention to the window of this mall boutique. The fact that the brand was named “Back Alley” was just icing on the cake. It just proves that fashion trumps innuendo, and pretty much anything else in Japan.

Kid's fashion

Most shirts say nothing, with no talk of drugs, sex, or being cute. They’re just cool looking foreign words on a shirt, like our “cool” Chinese tattoos, lacking the context that brings out the true beauty of words. But within these floating statements I find a subtle pleasure; an inside joke all my own to smirk at. I passed a first grader today whose shirt said “Walked about the forest with birds singing merrily above his head.” It put a nice picture in my mind. His classmate’s shirt said “It takes about the right time to get there.” I immediately decided that if death were to begin marketing itself, this should be it’s slogan. Death takes about the right time to get there, and if the birds keep singing merrily above your head on the journey there, you have little to complain about.

Undo Kai

Friday, October 20th, 2006

The most salient example of Japanese discipline is Undo Kai, the fall sports festivals for elementary and junior high school students. The kids arrive back from summer vacations to be herded into the sweltering school yard to begin Undo Kai preparation, two weeks of intense dance, singing, band, and marching practice. The end result is a very impressive six hour show where the red team competes against the white team in games, races, and group activities to see who gets bragging rights for the remainder of the year.

Being a spectator at Undo Kai is great. Families gather under tents and have picnics, rooting on their children through the eyepieces of their handy cams. The first festival I attended left me amazed at the amount of logistics necessary to pull off such a festival. It put my grade school plays and Christmas concerts to shame. By the time I finished the second festival at another school, I had been helping the students prepare for four weeks and had been behind the scenes enough to know that the convivial atmosphere of Undo Kai was a far cry to what the kids had been subjected to during preparation.

Two weeks of the curriculum is devoted to the festival, a large proportion of which consists of standing in line and mastering the choreography of the dance routines. It goes without saying that elementary students are not very interested in standing in line for hours each day. This fact is lost on most of the teachers who scold the students, often violently, for sitting down, goofing off, or any other “childish” behavior. My final impression of the festival is that it is frighteningly militaristic and marks the beginning of students grueling indoctrination to the Japanese “get in line” society. This term may seem harsh to those who haven’t been to Japan, but it would only take a few minutes in Tokyo to witness the long procession of black suits on there way to work each day to realize that this description has merit.

The systematic way in which the elementary students at my schools are guided into group conformity is only the tip of the iceberg in comparison to what goes on in junior and senior high school. At this point, the added pressure of Japan’s infamous testing system is introduced, a voluminous collection of facts deemed essential knowledge for entrance into competitive high schools and universities. Perhaps this is the purpose of Undo Kai. It is an early reminder that this ride isn’t necessarily going to be fun. On the surface it will look like a blast, with proud parents rooting on their children to the finish line. But in the real race there is monotony, and dull memorization, and at the finish line their is no medals or trophies. At the finish line there is a black suit that is worn for life.