Teaching In Socks

Shoes in the world of socks
August 24, 2009, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Today Ako enjoyed is first spell of great weather since May. It was sunny, with a few clouds and a nice breeze. For no explainable reason (unless you studied meteorology or have peripheral knowledge about how weather patterns work) the temperature was down around  twenty-four degree Celsius, which, if I do the conversion correctly, is a “party” degrees Fahrenheit.  Obviously, because of this I spent most of the day indoors sleeping, watching baseball, and running errands.

My reluctance to travel outside was mostly due to its requirement of pants and because the Summer Koshien Tournament Championship game was one today. Nihon Bunri (Niigata Prefecture), was losing 10-4 to Chukyodai Chukyo (Aichi Prefecture) and were down to their final strike. Amazingly, they rallied to score five runs before dramatically surrendering their final out on a line-drive ripped at the third baseman with a runner on. While it may not have exceeded the drama of last year’s two-day, extra innings affair, it came pretty close. As the teams bowed and embraced it was evident in every players’ eyes that they were extremely proud on both teams to have taken part in this game.

After I stopped crying in my breakfast, I did make an effort to enjoy the day’s favorable conditions. I headed out to kick a soccer ball around at a beautiful field alongside the river. Unfortunately, I arrived at the field only to discover that the recent flooding has caused a (hopefully) temporary relocation of the goal posts. I biked the along of the riverbank looking for the missing uprights and found them about a kilometer down river, sans nets, laying face-down next to an abandoned Dodge (they have Dodge here?) and some trash bags. I momentarily considered standing them up and putting them in order, but then I realized that the field was laden with wooden stakes and that my knowledge of my own tetanus shot history was probably insufficient to brazenly handle  hidebound, flood-damaged metal soccer goals.  Thus I went back to my original field–which was actually in pretty good shape–to have a kick around in spite of the missing nets. Playing Kick and chase, I probably ratcheted the “crazy foreigner” a point or two more than usual (My girlfriend later pointed out to me that I had been wearing my Nike shirt inside-out the entire time so maybe I even hit 11 on the “crazy gaijin” scale).

Speaking of Nike, I don’t often talk about fashion and trends on this blog because I am dude and also because Japan is the second biggest economy in the world and as such, the fundamental trends and fashions closely resemble those in America; it’s usually only in the nuances that they differ.  However, one of the nuances I have been keen on since my arrival is a Japanese brand of shoes aptly named “Dragon Beard”. I have wanted a pair since I arrived (and even sent a few friends home with a pair or two), but in a country were I wear shoes about 2% of the time, it always was a unnecessary extravagance. Luckily, this is what gift giving occasions are for, and last week my girlfriend snagged me a pretty choice pair. As you can see, I chose the “Team America #1” color scheme.  I plan to bring these back to America to make people trendier than me jealous of my foreign sensibilities and to scare children by telling them that they are made from real Dragons.

They Fly

They Fly

and breathe fire.

and breathe fire.

“They are made from real Dragons.”

-Me and several highly respected Scientists

There is crying in High School Baseball
August 18, 2009, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , ,
this year's been berry berry good to me

this year's been berry berry good to me

For our one-year anniversary I dragged my girlfriend out the 91st Japan High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium. This is all part of my secret, long-running plan to propose at halftime during a Rams- Browns game (at Cleveland, obviously) and then honeymoon in the romantic atmosphere of the NBA All-star game. I’m joking, but I’m sure people actually do these things.

The circumstances, were instead the result of an unfortunate scheduling conflict and my girlfriend being a really good sport (no pun intended).

During my year here, I’ve come to understand the Summer Koshien tournament (its nickname) as one of those unique Japanese experiences I had to take part in.Notably, this is because it optimizes all that can be good about baseball– It’s on Jim Caple’s Baseball Lover’s Bucket list for God’s sake.

Unfortunately, the only day I could go, maybe forever, happened to be the same day we planned to celebrate and had already made a dinner reservation in Kobe. However, the games take place during the day and Koshien is only fifteen minutes from Kobe, so my girlfriend suggested we go during the day and then track back to Kobe at night. I made some comment about being concerned about not being able to dress properly for both the game and the dinner and she justly laughed at me for being one of THOSE people (we were going to a pizza restaurant anyway).

The Summer Koshien tournament has the rare cachet of being one a baseball sacrament and a cannon Japanese tradition.  As I mentioned before, the tournament has the ability to display the purest form of baseball devoid of overpaid athletes, uninterested fans and $9 beers.You can see these kids trying. And not in the my next contract depends on this way,not on the I hate losing sort of way, but in the this is my life, and this could be the biggest moment in it sort of way and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

$9 beers; No, $4 Beers and Beer Girls: Yes

$9 beers; No, $4 Beers and Beer Girls: Yes

In the tournament, which is held over the summer break, over 4,200 High Schools across Japan compete in a single elimination tournament to reach Koshien.  To do so they have to earn one of the 49 spots in the tournament–one for each Prefecture, and two for Tokyo and Hokkaido.

The reward for garnering one of those spots in the tournament is getting to play on national television at Koshien stadium in the hottest weather imaginable.

The tournament has been played at Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers, since 1924. The stadium itself is Japan’s most holy baseball ground–sort of a combination of Wrigley and Fenway. It’s known for it’s eccentric and passionate fans and as the bastion for an absolutely electric atmosphere.

However, it is also an old stadium and as so it’s devoid of the amenities modern stadiums spoil us with. During the day games, only a small percentage of the seats garner an shade. Also,the seats are less seats and more scathing hot backless compact bleachers.

We arrived in time for the start of the second game– at 11:00 A.M. high time if your looking to get absolutely scorched by the sun crammed between thousands of other like minded people. You pay 500 yen ($5) for a ticket -which allows you to sit, in a section for the entire day, or four games.

Aas we arrived the game between  Teikyu High School from Tokyo and a school from Fukui Prefecture was just getting started. Before the game the teams meet at home plate and bow to each other, the teams then go to their cheering section in the stands and bow before them as well.  It’s part of entire code of respect that is strictly followed throughout the tournament. The tournament has this elegant balance between passion and respect. It’s like the Texas High School Football Championship if all the players were Buddhists. zealotry and humanity, clear minds and full hearts…or something.

Teikyu High School was heavily favored; they are one of the few High schools to win the tournament multiple times before. They also had a highly rated pitcher on the mound, who threw in the low 90’s and went 8 2/3s despite the fact that the temperature was hotter than his fastball.  It really was one of those days where they were selling bags of ice for 200 Yen ($2) and I thought it was a steal.

No tournament is a tournament without flags.

No tournament is a tournament without flags.

The atmosphere in the stands was a combination of a European soccer match, a college football agem and a Mensa crowd. The schools bring their own cheering sections–including cheerleaders and college football style bands. The general admission fans are ultra attentive to the game, always applauding great plays by either team and  always encouraging.

The team from Fukui battled hard but was really over matched by the Teikyu pitcher. He had a one hit game going through seven innings before Fukui was able to finally string some hits together. In the end though, it only earned them one run, which wasn’t enough to match the five runs Teikyu grabbed in the first three innings.

The end of the games contains probably the most significant traditions of the tournament. The teams meet again and bow. The winning team then stands behind home plate while their school flag is raised and song is played. The teams then go thanks their fans again.  By this point most of the players on the losing team, especially the third year students (their final year) are in tears–this is their big moment, and they have battled hard to get here. They pack up their belongings and grab a handful of dirt from the infield of Koshien and place it in a bag to take home with them and keep as a memento.

It’s a rather moving thing to watch,  between the effort put into the game and the heat the kids are just absolutely spent. This is something I can sympathize with after the game my girlfriend and I were completely exhausted from just sitting out in the sun for three hours. We canceled our dinner reservation and instead took the train home to find an air conditioner to sit next to.

Missing all the action

After weeks of dead air,  Michael Jackson excess, and puff-pieces on smile detectors the last week has been Mfilled with an abundance of headline grabbing news.

Japan was fortunate enough to avoid receiving the worst the massive typhoon that devastated parts of Eastern China and Taiwan. However,  the residual storm hit Hyogo Prefecture (where I live) over the weekend and caused torrential flooding of the local river as well as a deadly mudslide in a town to the north. Everything in Ako is in working order, but it was the first time I had seen a helicopter since being near the U.S. Air Force base in Okinawa.

I also avoided both (yeah, 2) of the Earthquakes that hit Japan this weekend (thanks for checking in, mom). Luckily, neither were fatal, and both were too far north for me to feel them, but an American celebrity was deeply and personally affected. By my count Volcanos, sandstorms, and Giant Lizards monsters are the only thing Mother Nature has left at her disposal to throw at Japan this week.

However, Japan is a developed,modernized and media driven country. Thus, while significant, none of these natural disasters were given a fraction of screen time and attention on the Evening News as the arrests of two Japanese Celebrities–in separate, unrelated incidents–for drug possession.  Early last week, TV actor and singer, Manabu Oshio, was being arrested for using for Ecstasy. As a result, his management agency fired him for breech of contract and his wife, whom he had been separated from, formally divorced him.

Oshio must have prayed to whatever pagan-voodoo news media demon that helped out mark Sanford out of his mess, because Oshio’s story was quickly eclipsed popular TV actress and singer (yes, they are all double threats over here), Noriko Sakai, who fled law enforcement after her husband was arrested for possession of stimulants. Furthermore, it was revealed that her husband was a member of the Japanese Crime organization, the Yakuza, and that before fleeing, she left her 10-year old son with a family friend, a friend who happened to be secretly having an affair with Sakai’s husband. She had turned off her cellphone and withdrawn money and speculation brewed about who would find (or had found) her first, the authorities, or the Yakuza. Eventually after several days on the lamb, she turned herself into the Police and admitted to stimulant abuse. Even after the resolution of this affair, the news media seems to be obsessed with the details. Many of my student I have spoken to claim to be tired of the coverage–while in the meantime consistently bringing up the subject in conversation. It’s my predication that the cameras will stay focused on this until Kim Jong Il does something crazy (aka next week).

Meanwhile, as Japan News media burned, I most played Punch Out for Nintendo Wii and went to see Hachi–an American movie based on the true story about a Japanese dog. The actual dog, Hachiko, an Akita, is famous in Japan for waiting at Shibuya train station for nine years (1926-1935) awaiting the return of his master, who had suffered a stroke at work and subsequently died. While Americanized, the movie is quiet good.I can’t speak too much towards the dialog as the version I watched was dubbed in Japanese, but I will confess I violated my policy to never cry at a Richard Gere movie, and even disturbing is that I cried for a dog that said that Richard Gere’s character was dead. In spite of the flood I would have stayed dry had it not been for a pair sad puppy dog eyes.

Smiles are free

Usually when you find a video about Japan on an English speaking website it’s either about robots, or something intensely bizarre–like a game show for cartoon rabbits. This, year I have seen everything from robot chairs, to rocket chairs, to a cat who had been designated the Honorary Station Master  of a train station in Northern Japan.

I found the above video on the AP web channel and I liked it because while it was remotely insane, the story also presented two interesting social dynamics I have noticed during my time here.

The first and more obvious point of cultural significance documented is the immense value workers in the Japanese service industry put on giving good service, and the effort they put in to achieving that goal (as long as you don’t try to order off the menu). I can’t say I’m a person who even really appreciates good service. In retail situations I try to avoid the sales person for fear of being pressured into buying  leather pants or disappointing them when I don’t buy the leather pants they recommend.

Still, the disparity in the level of service you receive in Japan, versus an average American experience is not only blaring obvious, but also it is often delivered in a way that isn’t overwhelming or distracting. For example,  when I walk into the convenience store I am greeted every time, and thanked every time.  This is a basic and decent amount of human interaction–especially if you want people to pay you money for things–and even brings a certain amount of honor to transaction.In the larger shops they even go as far as to walk you out of the store and thank you profusely.

There’s also the practical side of service; across the board the package you items carefully and efficiently, and when it’s raining they often wrap your bag with a rain cover.

Of course, there is the dark overkill said to service, but not having purchased a car or a home (or really any item large enough to inspire desperation in a salesperson) I find that this brand of sales tactic seems to be confined to the young womens section of the department store.  I can only process these pop-driven, Girl fortresses as a series of blurry, glittering lights and the shrill sounds of intermittent high-pitched giggling between the sound a credit card swipes. Maybe the overkill approach appeals to this specific “tween” consumer, I don’t know and I am sure I wouldn’t know what it looked it. (full disclosure: I am a card carrying member of G.R.O.S.S, since 1988).

That niche market aside, I the level of service in America is more than a few god-awful training videos away from reaching the level of mastery where they work on refining their smile in a machine every morning. Let’s be honest though, refining your smile in a smile-measuring computer  is entirely absurd; it’s like three stages away from Total Recall technology.

However, while the usefulness of this machine is debatable, the greater significance–for me–is the role of this machine in the culture of statistical feedback. As I have mentioned, Japanese people have an emphatic and remarkable work ethic, and this ethic is fueled by setting goals, and receiving feedback to help them set goals to achieve. While I have yet to determine the root of this characteristic, Japan as a whole seems to value quantitative information and feedback higher than the basic qualitative advice. I can understand this to some degree because numbers are an easy way to explain and measure things. If you boss says you are doing the job at 80% then you know where you stand, and how much (but perhaps not what) more you need to do.  However, this can be taken to a fault; it can be applied in places where numbers don’t really work as a great system of measurement or offer insightful way to improve.

Recently in my science class we focused our emphasis on pronunciation. While it’s been a big help to some of the lower-level and beginning students, the head of the class introduced an exercise where the students repeat back to me the word we have just practiced and I give them a pronunciation grade. He asked me to give them a instant percentage grade on each attempt. However, this is class with many beginners; it became instantly clear to me that throwing out numbers could be rather demoralizing for some students who struggle with basic sounds–especially when we are practicing  words ranging from “light” to “tuyere” to “thermodynamics”.

Also, my mind does not work in a way that it can break down individual word pronunciation statistically. I can’t quickly  divide words by syllables or letters and then score which of those has been done perfectly, Furthermore, I don’t think that numbers serve or helpful method of measurement for aurual sounds. If I say it was an 80%, how does it teach the student to get a 100%? How is that even better than me just repeating the part of the word they have difficulty with and giving no score at all?

Having had my own troubles with pronouncing words in the past, I have come to the belief that grading pronunciation is better served by a system with the metrics of, “pass”, “fail”  and “close enough that your friends or colleagues won’t mock you”.

Accordingly, I adjusted my feedback to four responses with that hope that this system was helpful, yet also encouraging. I settled on: “perfect”, “very good”, “pretty good” and then one–in the event that they get stuck or completely mispronounced the word–where I grimaced a little and repeated the word. If they get below “very good” I always repeat the word and emphasize the problem area until they are able to get it correct.

Of course, while my plan seemed like a great idea, it was just another example of me blowing against the wind. At first the students seemed to like my new metrics. They would sort of act cocky and brag if they got a “perfect”. Within the second or third go around of the new scale, the head of the class turned to me and asked, “‘perfect’ is 100%?” “‘pretty good’ 80%? 90%” “‘very good’ is 75%? 60%? which?”. As soon as I compromised and answered those questions he began following up my student assessments by yelling out the corresponding percentage points every time.

Add this to the list of those great “oh yeah, I am in Japan moments”. I’ve learned all you can do in those situations is reach into your motherboard, adjust the dial, and turn your smile up to 110% (“super-perfect”).

That’s right, we smile at 11 over here.