一学期いよいよ終わります。

The 梅雨(つゆう/rainy season) began a few weeks ago. Usually, this time of year it rains every morning.  The heavy downpour brings relief from the heat, but after it gives way to the oppressive mid-afternoon sunshine, the fallen rain rises from the ground and the air becomes stagnant and sticky.  The rainy season this year, however, has been relatively dry. It has rained far less frequently and when it has rained it has done so heavily only once. The worst part about the weather at present is the static humidity in the air. I open the doors and windows in my classroom and turn on the wall-mounted oscillating fans, but without any sort of breeze coming through, my poor students sit, sweat and suffer.

On a related note, I learned today that the 国際交流室 (こくさいこうりゅうしつ/international room) just got a pair of クーラー (coolers; air conditioners). I was a little confused and upset since my classroom, in which I teach 16 classes per week, lacks air conditioning, while the international room is barely used at all. In fact, it is used only by the PTA during their meetings around the time of the culture festival and graduation, and as a type of teachers’ lounge by the student teachers during their three week stint in late May and early June. When I asked the vice-principle why the international room had been given priority over my classroom, he told me that the PTA had paid for it.

On the same day that the rainy season began this year, my school held its 体育祭 (たいいくさい/sports festival).  The sports festival is a series of competitions in which three teams compete.  Each team is represented by a color and consists of students from all three years.  Thus, the sports festival is a colorful event since the students wear their PE uniforms, which are a different color depending on their year, plus a 鉢巻き (はちまき/headband) which is the team color. This year the first-years are red, the second-years are blue and the third-years are green, and the three different teams were orange, pink and yellow.  The events are mostly different types of relay races.  The most amusing/tragic of these is the club relay. In this race, a representative from each of the various clubs races wearing the uniform or clutching the main object used by the club. Naturally, the 陸上 (りくじょう/track and field), soccer and baseball club racers have a huge advantage over the 剣道 (けんどう/kendo) and 吹奏楽 (すいそうがく/brass band) club representatives, since the Kendo members wear extremely heavy and restrictive uniforms and the band member has to run with his or her chosen musical instrument!  The highlight for the students, though, is the dance competition.  While it may seem odd to those of us from the West to include dancing in a sports competition, it is the single biggest event for students here and they practice for weeks choreographing, designing costumes and putting together signs and props they will use during the performance.  At the end of the day, the outcomes of the various events are tallied together and awards are announced. Inevitably, the winners – especially the third-years – cry the most.

We’ve had a very special treat the last few weeks at school: an exchange student.  My predecessor’s predecessor was from Texas and apparently helped set up a relationship between the two schools.  Last year, a group of students from this high school near Houston, Texas came for a visit and stayed with student host families for one night before continuing on their trip around Japan.  During Spring break this year, a few of our students went to San Francisco and Houston and visited their school. And now, one of their students has come to our school.  She’s been assigned a home room and given a school uniform just like the rest of the students, though she occasionally visits classes, like mine, outside of her homeroom class’s schedule or studies Japanese one-on-one with one of the Japanese English teachers.  It’s been interesting to compare and contrast her with her new cohorts and to hear perspective on the differences between the American and Japanese high school experience.  Mostly, her reaction mirrors my own when I first arrived: how much the students talk and sleep in class – something that shatters our image of studious Asian students and something we would never have come close to getting away with at our own high schools.  This is her final week and I’ll definitely miss her when she’s gone. This short exchange is being seen has a trial run for having additional, possibly longer-term exchanges, something I think would enormously benefit the American and Japanese students alike. I’ve been very happy to see how eager my kids are to try to talk to her in English, and when they see she and I talk, they seem to realize for the first time that English is a living language and not merely a school subject.

This is the last week of regular classes at my school before final exams begin next week.  After exams conclude, there will be a couple of weeks of only morning classes during which the tests will be returned and discussed, and then the first semester will come to an end with the 終業式(しゅうぎょうしき/closing ceremony).

さよなら、春休み、よこうそ新学年!

I went to China for spring break, and since this a Japanese blog I won’t talk about my trip other than to note the new security procedures when re-entering Japan from a foreign country. In the past, as a foreign resident with a work visa and a multiple re-entry permit I was able to queue up in the line with Japanese citizens and more or less breeze through customs and immigration. However last year, citing the threat of terror, the Japanese Diet passed new legislation that requires all foreigners, visitors and residents alike, to be photographed and finger-printed upon entry into the country. Naturally, I can no longer get in the citizen line. I was a little upset when I heard the news, but found the reality to be far less incovenient than I initially expected. Japan can be astonishingly efficient in some ways and frustratingly inefficient in others. Fortunately the new procedures as implemented at Kansai International proved to be pretty easy. A nice, older gentleman directed us from the queue to the immigration officers. At each station, there is a computer monitor with an integrated webcam that the officer controls to take your picture, as you place both index fingers onto scanners on either side of the monitor and press down. The only other change is the hanging of a huge banner against the back wall that says something to the effect of “for the prevention of terrorism,” something that I think may be a bit of an overreaction on the part of the government.

Now it’s April and the sakura (桜) trees have burst open with cherry blossoms, signaling the start of a new school and work year in Japan. The official first day of school was Tuesday. In the morning the second and third years came for the 始業式 (しぎょうしき/opening ceremony). Along with the usual speech by the principle, there was an onstage introduction of all the new teachers and staff. Every year, some of the teachers and administrative staff are shuffled around between the prefectural high schools. This year we got new math, science, social studies and English teachers, along with a new school nurse and groundskeeper. The 入学式 (にゅうがくしき/entrance ceremony) for 新入生 (しんにゅうせい/incoming first years) was held at 2pm. As the band plays and parents and siblings watch, the homeroom teachers lead their new classes into the gym, seating them just like the graduation ceremony, with half the class on the right, half on the left of the procession pathway. Following the national anthem, the principle gives another speech, and then introduces the homeroom teachers. The new students also sing the school’s alma mater for the first time. At the conclusion, the homeroom teachers lead the students out the way they came in and take them to their new homerooms. The parents stay for a while longer and receive general information on the school. The next day there’s yet another ceremony in which the second and third years “meet” the new first years. First the third years are seated on the gym floor, each class in single file, followed by the second years and finally the first years. A space is left between first years on the left side and the second and third years on the right . This is so the students have plenty of room to bow to each other at the beginning of the ceremony. First, the entire student body bows to the principle, then the two groups of students face each other and bow. Finally, they move together and close the gap, in essence becoming a single group. The speeches in this ceremony are given by a few of the former teachers and staff, who have either just been transferred to different schools or have retired. They talk about their time at the school, and inevitably someone gets choked up and wipes away a few tears. Mostly, the students seem bored by the affair.

Like last year, I’m teaching all of the first and second years (seven classes of ~40 students each), as well as the third year oral communication class which meets twice a week, giving me 16 classes per week. Unlike last year, where I went to the homeroom classes for their writing lessons, this year I’m having the students come to the language laboratory (LL) for my classes. Most English classes meet three times a week, and I’m in only one of those. I had my first class today and it went decently well. At the beginning of the school year the new students are extremely shy, especially in English class. Hopefully with time they’ll open up a bit and will more readily try to speak.

相撲

I live in a suburb of Osaka about a ten minute train ride from the city. It’s mostly a bedroom community with a few factories, the largest of which is Sanyo. To put it diplomatically, there’s really not much to this town. So imagine my surprise when I learned there is a sumo practice facility here. The Osaka sumo tournament starts in a few days and so every year around this time, we suddenly start to see a lot of sumo wrestlers near the station coming and going. I had the special treat yesterday of visiting this practice facility, which it turns out is about a ten minute walk from my apartment, and on the very same road!

A teacher at my friend’s school invited us to meet him at 8am. We walked to a shipping company and then entered a room on the side of the main office building. Inside was a dirt floor and on one side, a small raised area with tatami mats for people to sit. And of course there were sumo wrestlers, about twenty of them, taking turns fighting. They all looked pretty tired, and the air was warm and damp from all the sweat. We sat and watched the practice until it ended at 10:45am. Afterwards I asked one of the sumo wrestlers what time they had started. 「五時半」(ごじはん/5:30) he replied.

Among those watching the practice was the president of the company. Afterwards, he invited us up to his office, served us drinks and chatted us up about various things. At noon, he led us up to the next floor and we ate ちゃんこ鍋 (chanko nabe), the traditional sumo food, for lunch. The waiters for our meal were the sumo wrestlers themselves! It was a pretty surreal experience. By this time they had bathed and changed clothes. In public they’re required to wear traditional Japanese clothes, but here most of them were wearing (very large) T-shirts and shorts. Some even wore glasses, which I’d never seen before.

After lunch, we returned to the president’s office where he was entertaining two visiting sumo wrestlers, both Mongolian and both very highly ranked. He showed me the 番付 (ばんづけ/sumo ranking list) for the upcoming tournament and pointed out their names. The higher the rank, the higher the position on the paper. Theirs were at the top of the page, but they are in the lowest rank of the top division: 前頭 (まえがしら). Still, very impressive.

It was an unexpectedly fun day. Japan is always full of surprises and you never know what interesting thing might be just down the road!