Teaching In Socks

Shoes in the world of socks
August 24, 2009, 2:35 pm
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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

Soccer Swans
March 9, 2009, 4:56 pm
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i thought winning was the only thing.

half-time entertainment = mountains

On Sunday, I went to Kyoto with a few of my students to watch a soccer game. I went to several games last year to support my adopted team, Vissel Kobe, but this was the opening week of the 2009 season.

The professional league in Japan, J-league 1, was established the same year as MLS was in America; however, it is, it my estimation, relatively more popular in Japan.  While baseball is wildly popular and has a similar season, it is the only sport that the J-League really has to compete with for an audience.  It also helps that Japan has co-hosted a World Cup within the last decade, and soccer doesn’t carry the kind of stigma in Japan, the some feel it has in America

Thus, I found myself at a packed converted college stadium with around 17,000 other people to watch Vissel Kobe take on Kyoto Sagna. Being a new league compared ot Europe, the teams, and their fans specifically, look to Europe for inspiration in building traditions. As with anything that corsses language and cultural barriers, there are elements that are lost in translation.

Several team names are the most obvious examples of this. The most successful team over the last few years has been the Kashima Antlers. The translation of the city name Kashima literally means “deer island”. Still my students were delighted to learn what the word “Antler” meant, even though the team logo is a silhouette of a deer head.

Another popular team, Gamba Osaka, has a name with mixed derivation. “Gamba” in Italian means “leg”. “Gambaru” is a Japanese word for “do one’s best”.  I’m not sure many of their own fans pick on the cleverness of the nomenclature. My students actually argued over the root of this name until we checked the internet to discover that they were both right.

However, I think the names of the two particpants of the match I attended are the most interesting of the bunch. Vissel Kobe is a derivation of two English words into what might be described as an English non-word. Kobe is famous for it’s shipping port, which prior to the earthquake in 1995 rivaled Tokyo’s, thus the owners or marketing wizards in charge combined the word “victory” with the word “vessel”, hoping to capture the spirit of the city. Instead they created this lexicographical mutant, which I had always assumed was denoting a corporate sponsorship of the team by a vacuum company. (Please note, I do not condoen Vacuum compnay sponsorship of professional sprts teams unless it’s one of the following The Dyson Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Cubs brough to you by Hoover, or the Washington Oreck-Generals) (SubNote: The New Jersey Dirt Devils may also be acceptable).

While, Vissel is a non-word, I found that even less people knew what “Sagna” meant even though it has actually etymological roots. I will confess I had to turn to Wikipedia for this one, but the article stated that “Sanga” is a Sanskrit word for “group” and is an homage to Kyoto’s tradition as the epicenter of  Buddhism in Japan.

I’m not sure which is a more peculiar choice for a team name, a modern cocktail of two words, or a word from multi-millennium old language that has about a total of 14,000 living speakers remaining, none whom live in Japan, let alone Kyoto (that I know of).

Nomenclature aside, a game was played between the “victorious ships” and the “group”. While there were moments of inspired play, it was evident that this was the beginning of the season.  While Kyoto Sanga spent a good portion of the start of the match and the end of the match backed up against their goal, they were able to grab a goal in the middle and keep a clean sheet and the 1-0 victory.

Having read the soccer-sociologist bible, “How Soccer Explains the World” a few years ago, I’m always trying to look at the game as something greater than just soccer– rather and entity indicative of a social identity. On Sunday, two things stood out in this regard. First, the league allows each team a quota of four foreign born players. Almost league-wide these players tend to be Brazilian or Korean–and I would say a brief survey suggest they are predominantly Brazilian. Brazilians are to the J-League what Americans are to Japanese baseball.

While in one respect this can be attributed to the surplus of soccer talent in Brazil,  while in Japan I have learned that during the 1980’s there was an engineer exchange program between Brazil and Japan. many Brazilians came over to Japan as part of a program to train engineers. There are several cities in Japan that have substantial Brazilian populations. I imagine that this program, over time, has forged a national familiarity between the two countries, and soccer has become part of the social currency exchanged.

Stylistically too, the Brazilian players compliment the Japanese style of play. Although I’m not sure to what degree Brazilian influence has crafted the Japanese style any more than any other country; from loose observation what I saw, and have seen from the national team, appears to be something that feels organically Japanese.

Goals and chances may begin with a variety of ways, but the preferred method of attacking always seems to include lots of short, quick passes, delicate footwork, clever and calculated little runs complimented by these intricately weighted balls designed to dissect the defense rather than overpower it or out-run it.

Watching Japanese soccer always reminds me of Oragami. I think of this way: if you asked an American or German to turn a a piece of paper into the shape of a swan, they would get out pair of scissors and swfitly cut the paper into the proper shape (and Germans would yell cuss words the entire time and measure things in millimeters). However, A Japanese person would undertake the process by executing a sequence of precise folds, exuding  diligence  with each step until creating this fascinating  3-d representation.

In soccer terms, this can be a frustratiing process to be audience too. Whether it be Vissel, or the Japanese National team (which is notoriously guilty of this style of soccer for better or worse), I often find myself wanting to shout at the player to play more directly. The again, America’s soccer record doesn’t give me much leverage in any suggestion I would make.

essentials, fringe benefits, and the beginnings of an “honor” discourse

I am currently riding the sonic waves of another productive weekend. I returned to my new favorite city, Kobe, made a deal with the devil, and found myself the new owner of a used guitar. It’s been almost two months since I’ve put my fingers to a fret so it was a relief to get back on an ax and find the chords still familiar and remember that the vocals still need work.

There may be consequences though. I fear that the trim thickness of my apartment walls and my irregular working hours might dictate that my neighbors and I a new familiarity with each other soon. I’m trying to keep the guitar fest to a minimum after midnight, but occasionally the musical urge disrupts my biological clock and I find the notes flowing at an unreasonable hour. It appears my only legitimate chance of salvation lies in the possibility that my neighbors enjoy mediocre, acoustic Stones covers and don’t own any large knives. Sadly, this is Japan, sharp knives are aplenty and my chances look slim.

I hope to go out rocking harder than ever (note to self: polish up that mean “Freebird” solo stat).

In the continued tradition of naming my larger Japanese purchases, I will name this guitar “Mr. Katana”. I was going to go with Guitarzilla, but my cell phone has already claimed “Cellzilla”, and a sequential continuation would just seem so unoriginal.

Friends in battle.

Friends in battle.

I also put my newly purchased soccer ball to use this weekend. It was an interesting experience. The field I used was large and empty, but primarily dirt. I had a few spectators in several elderly Japanese athletes who were using the surrounding track.  Between their uniform looking attire and the way the kept glancing at me with stoic faces, I kept thinking one of them was going to come inform me I needed a permit to use the field or that I wasn’t honoring the facility properly, but I kicked around and left without incident.

Games play a large role in my life in Japan and I’ve begun to relish and appreciate their presence.

I think the Japanese agree; Rock, Paper, Scissors (they call it Janken) is the preferred method of dispute resolution in Japan.  I think this is a fantastic policy.

In my classroom, I also get to play a lot of hangman and Jenga. Hangman actually could be one of the five pillars or learning. I’m not sure what the other four are, but if you want to learn a new word and ensure you remember it, fear of fictional, cartoon asphyxiation is a great motivation tool. I wrap up a class with a rousing game of hangman at least five times a week. I’m thinking about going Pro.

It’s hard to determine if my students enjoy the game anywhere near as much as I do, but as long as I have the control of the whiteboard (which is always), the scaffold and stick figure has a place on the board.

I also know what you’re thinking…JENGA? How does he get paid to play Jenga? I can’t actually take credit for this development. My previous teacher had the genius idea to write some English letters on Jenga blocks. If you make the kids pronounce the letters as they remove the corresponding blocks, you have an unstable learning structure of excitement. If given the choice, I would want to learn everything in Jenga format.  My students agree; the popularity of this game with children (and myself) is immense. I also think the fragility of the Jenga structure provides and interesting social insight.

I think it’s fair to say that most of the world looks upon Japan as a culture that champions “honor” above all other virtues.  For a number of reasons that I will address in a future post, so far, i would confirm this assessment as generally accurate.

However, people often misinterpret the attributes and jurisdiction of Japanese “honor”.



I think that several of my friends are the assumption that my child students are incredibly well-behaved due to this invisible honor specter that keeps them in line. This is not the case, or if it ever was the case, the powers of the ghost are eroding with younger generation (very possible this is the case). It appears in the majority of the “developed” world, the days of regimented, militaristic instilling of obedience to authority have ceased. (debate this and the virtues of such practices on your own time).

Honor is very alive in Japanese society, but my younger students are no more well-behaved or disobedient than children I was in charge of at summer camps in America. Even with Jenga–attraction number one for these kids, I still have classes where the average game lasts less than two minutes because there is the kid (or kids) that achieves enjoyment in sabotaging the tower every chance he gets.  Through clenched teeth or anger and disappointment, I appreciate the cultural similarity.

I want to share some other encounters I have had with the Japanese honor system– in didactic enterprise, eating and politics, as they have been extremely relevant as of late, but they will have to wait as the require their own separate and esteemed post….

Global Frequency
August 16, 2008, 3:28 pm
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Just put my first Saturday where I had all of my classes in the books. I have great students on Saturday. Each of them do an excellent job being attentive in class. They also each have a way of keeping the material interesting (read: silly) and fun which is a big benefit to me.   In some classes I probably learn more than them, and I’m being paid for this.

Today, for instance,  I learned where several  mid-major Japanese cities are located (my status of former Geography Bee runner-up has its limitations, there are still things I have yet to master,mid size Japanese metropolises being one of them) as well as some information on giant telescopes.

Still, eight classes in one day can take its toll. Often,  by 8pm my voice starts to fade and most of my whiteboard markers are dead–today Blue was the lone survivor, better luck next week Red, Green, and Black

It also doesn’t help that I neglected to eat all day (an increasingly common Saturday habit), or that I encountered my first “child tantrum”. The kodomo  meltdown all started three minutes before class when we decided to let one of the 5 year-olds watch some “Tom & Jerry” in the lobby before class. The start time for the class came and I knew it was coming immediately. Frankly I agree with him; I’m not as Interesting as Tom, Jerry, or the combination of the two.

The boy did not want to get out of his chair so the great process began. There was negotiating, followed by  demands, then bribing, and eventually threats accompanied by “stern” parental discipline.  In the end, no wins and no one forgets,and the kid will have to wait until next year ot learn about the possibilities of the letter “K” (hint: Koala).

Asa result, I now find myself enjoying the comforts of home and the sophisticated bliss of the beginning of a new Barclay’s Premier League season (“English soccer league” for the American readership). Currently, I am in my Japanese apartment, sitting on my “modernesque” reclining floor-chair, eating an American grilled cheese, drinking a 24oz Kirin’s Draft Beer and watching two English football matches (one of the TV special Cable channel I purchased, and another via the internet) neither of which is being broadcast in a language I have achieved any sort of fluency in.  The television match is in Japanese, and the computer match happens to be in espanol. Top that, Globe Trekker!

Let’s face it, right now, I am the most worldly person you know and I’m just sitting at home on a Saturday night.

Tomorrow though I will get out and explore…and maybe have some dry cleaning done, which I assume will be quite the challenge. Does anyone know the Japanese for “light starch”? I’m thinking of trying out “Light, starch-o”…