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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

First Day At A Japanese School - Opening Impressions

Apparently... when I lived in Japan from August of 1990 through August of 1993, I was a teacher... yet this blog doesn't really reflect that.

I was on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme back then, not yet 26-years-old, from Toronto, Canada. I had graduated from university two years previous with a degree in political science and not knowing if that qualified me to be employable I promptly went to college and did a two-year journalism program, leaving early (but still graduating) because I was lucky enough to get into the Toronto Star newspaper Summer Internship Program... considered the height of such programs for journalism students... which was why my school figured it was okay for me to cut out two months early, because the goal was to teach one to be a good journalist... and I was, as the Toronto Star offered proof by accepting me.

I left the program a month early to go to Japan as an assistant English teacher on JET... something I really didn't want to do because... I was entering my chosen profession at the top of the field with The Star.. and I really didn't want to go to Japan.

My dad convinced me otherwise, saying the opportunity might never present itself again. So far... he's right.

So... there I was in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken... basically a 50,000 person city that was a glorified farming community. From my apartment, I could throw a rock in any direction and hit a rice field or a 7-11. It's only a slight exaggeration.

To call myself a teacher would also be an exaggeration, even though the Japanese always called me An-do-ryu-sensei (Andrew teacher).

Sure, I had taught piano and clarinet and coached soccer for right years including the women's team at college, but teacher... that's a stretch and I knew it.

I was just there in Japan to team-teach with great expectations to act as a human tape recorder. I have excellent communication skills with a rumbling voice that could make your balls vibrate (if you have'em, of course) wondering if there is thunder outside.

So... teaching?

Up above (photo) ... that is my very first class schedule... at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School). As you can see from the schedule, there are four Japanese teachers of English - their photos are below.

Ohtawara Chu Gakko was by far the largest of the city's seven (as of 1993) junior high schools, and I would visit this school far more often, as it would essentially take two busy weeks for me to see every class. 


My first visit to any of my schools was going to be pure self-introduction... who I am and why I'm interesting enough for you (the student) to want to listen or talk to me, and it began with me in front of the entire school - and then some.

The handsome Shibata-sensei of Ohtawara Chu Gakko. I had no idea at the time, but his dad was the Principal of the school... and it was thought that this young man would one day take the same position.

Shibata-sensei had come to see me at the Ohtawara Board of Education office the week previous to give me this schedule... noting that classes started every day at 8:35AM; Lunch was between 12:35-1PM; Cleaning time was from 1:35-1:50PM; and that afternoon classes began at 1:55PM.

There were also teacher's meetings from 8-8:15AM every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I was expected to be present, though not necessarily required to participate.

I never knew what went on in these meetings, despite sterling attendance, because it was rightly done entirely in Japanese. I always had a o-cha (green tea) served to me by one of the female staff as soon as I arrived (I was never late in three years - NEVER), and that caffeine got me through those meetings, though chances are good I had my head down just like every other teacher while someone droned on... maybe I was doing a crossword or studying Japanese.

More than likely, however... that first time in each school, I was smartly paying attention to the speaker, with my head held high, making eye contact, because that's the western way, and dammit, I was supposed to show how I did things in my country.     

As you can hopefully see, there was an 8AM welcome ceremony for me in the gym on September 3...  and was told to be at school at 7:50AM.
The gym is to the left, the main school in the center and I believe a judo building to the far right.

I can't recall how I got to school that day... more than likely I did ride my bike there, because it's only two kilometers from my apartment... I wore a crisp white shirt and tie - short sleeve, of course, because it was still around 30C... and I was probably all sweaty from the bike ride and the humidity when I arrived at school.

As soon as I arrived, the teachers (Inoue-sensei, I believe) ushered me to the gymnasium - a separate building that meant I had to put on my outdoor shoes to get to.

And as soon as I got into the gym, I had to remove those shoes and put on my indoor shoes (which I neglected to bring with me and were still back in the main school building... so teachers began searching the pile of slippers there to find the largest green plastic floppy slippers they had... which might have been a size 7... I was a 10-1/2 back then (11 now), so a large portion of the back of my foot hung out.

To combat the problem of me throwing a shoe like a spirited young colt, I scrunched up my toes and got another inch of my foot into these slippers - all of which, no matter where you go in Japan, all have the back half of the footwear completely open. By scrunching up my toes, the plastic folded nicely around the top of my foot ensuring I wasn't goining to accidentally kick my slippers into the kocho-sensei (principal's) groin.

It would be funny as all hell, but not the sort of entrance you want to make on your first day of school.

Apparently, I was supposed to write a two-minute English speech and bring a copy of it with me on the Monday (yesterday) back at the OBOE... and I did... so Shibata-sensei, the school's youthful head English teacher could translate it overnight so he could repeat it to the thronging masses in Japanese.

All well and good... but I had left my copy of the damn English speech back.

So I winged it.

And so did Shibata-sensei... whom I had met earlier and gone drinking with at a city matsuri (festival)... so I knew he was a damn fine English speaker and would  have no problem with my new speech.

After a decently long introduction by the Principal, he turned to me to get up off the plastic chair I was sitting on at the (audience's) far right of the gym's stage, where all the other teachers were sitting who did not have a home room class of their own. The principal moved far off to the left side of the stage where Shibata-sensei stood with a microphone.

Basically, I was left up on a stage all by my loneseome...

Yup, that really is me during the September 4, 1990 welcome speech at Ohtawara Junior High School. I always wore a tie.
I should mention that there were 20 classes of Japanese junior high students (aged 12-15) representing grades 7-9. Each class had between 34-45 students apiece... so there were over 900 students... plus 20 more teachers out in the audience, plus 20 more on stage, plus the board of education had come out to see the spectacle - so another 50 people... and... I was told later, many parents were curious to get a glimpse of me, so there were another 200 or so people there.

Two years earlier, this shy boy would have died. But journalism taught me to conquer my fears to go and talk to anyone and everyone to get the story.

And so... in Japan... I gave them my story.
Along with teaching calligraphy, Kunita-sensei was the boys baseball team coach and a hell of a good English teacher. I have a story with him in two days time.I tried to sneak photos of everyone to get a more natural look... I suppose the blurry image shows I failed miserably. I believe a battery was dying in my camera making the shutter speed slooooow.

As I stood up, I scrunched my toes in those slippers and walked - not shuffled - towards the podium. Behind the podium against the stage's back wall, three flags were there... Canada's and the city of Ohtawara's flanked Japan's in the middle.

I'm still not sure if this is a faux pas or not, but I turned my back to the audience and bowed long and deep to the Japanese flag, before turning again toward the principal to my right and bowed to him with deep honor and respect.

I then turned to the whole audience and bowed to them all. Long and deep. Everybody likes it long and deep. The bowing, I mean.

Should I have turned my back on the audience? That could be an error, but I think I more than made up for it by showing my respect to the Japanese flag. I never knew about that whole turning one's back thing.

I still hadn't cracked a smile yet. I was as solemn and nervous as you could get. But, after bowing to my audience, I smiled...  and if you knew me (some of you do), that smile is pretty comfortable. I don't have to fake it - it's just there and I can light up a room.

That smile... It not only made me relax (it'[s not a toothy smile - more of a happy-go-lucky grin), but I hoped it made my audience relax.

But... they are Japanese, so who could tell. There was no show of emotion.
The lovable Banai-sensei. If she wasn't married I would have hit on her. She had such a wonderful sense of humor that every English class was fun for her students... I know because I sat in on a few of her classes when I wasn't team-teaching with anyone... just to see what a Japanese class was like when I wasn't around.

I did the standard Japanese intro of myself.

"Watashi-no namae-wa Josefu Andoryu desu. (My name is Andrew Joseph)."

"Dozo yorishiku onagaishimasu" (which I think I got right, meaning, please take care of me). Whatever... it's been a while, but that is what you are supposed to say when you first join a company or meeting group...

I bowed again to my audience.

Then it was all English. I told them all that I was very excited to be here in Japan and that I looked forward to working with the English teachers here at Ohtawara Junior High School to help teach the students English.

I didn't say 'better' English or anything like that. That would imply there was a problem - and even if there was, this was not the time to remind anyone of that. Diplomacy 101. That Political Science degree might have come in handy there, but really, it's common sense.

Whatever Shibata-sensei translated was longer than what I said, and without any hesitation - I told you he was good!, but I only assume he directly translated me.

I also said I was looking forward to getting to know the teachers and students and about the Japanese-wa... Japanese culture or harmony, but I said it in English, because I really didn't know much more Japanese language than that.

I said "thank you, and let's get to work and have fun."

It was translated, and there was a brief murmur in the crowd... and then I bowed to my audience, bowed to the Principal.

The Principal must have given a look to the audience, because the homeroom teachers yelled something, and everyone stood up and bowed to me and remained standing.
Along with teaching history, Inoue-sensei was the most experienced of the English teachers at Ohtawara Junior High School and even though his English may not have been on par with Shibata-sensei's, it was pretty damn good. He had the heart of the Japanese but had quite the international mind, and he and I were always found huddled together sharing secrets about each other's country. He's one of the few Japanese teachers I ever went out drinking with privately that I was not trying to sleep with. He taught me so much about Japan. He was also the school's disciplinarian. More later.


A young Japanese girl came up carrying flowers and gave a short English speech.

"Dear Mister An-do-ryu sensei. Thank you for coming to Japan. We look forward to learning about you and your country. Please teach us well."

She bowed and gave me the flowers.

I bowed back to her. Looking at her, I smiled the biggest smile I have ever given, because dammit... right then and there, that's when I realized I was going to be all right in Japan... that the kids could speak English so well...

(I was wrong about at least one thing in that last paragraph.)

I turned and bowed to the Principal again and the Japanese flag and walked back to my seat.  Before sitting, I bowed to my fellow teachers, who were my fellow employees... I told you I wasn't a teacher... at least not in the classic Japanese sense...

Everyone was standing... the Principal gave another brief speech, everyone bowed to him and to the teachers on stage or to the flag - no idea... my brain was going a thousand miles an hour at this time...

I hadn't screwed up, and I hadn't dropped a slipper into the Principal's gonads.

It was my first exposure to Ohtawara Chu Gakko... and I figured I had the world as my oyster... it certainly felt that way.

We'll stop here for now, and continue later with what those first classes were like - less about me, and perhaps more about the kid's themselves... and after that, maybe even a sneak peak at what the Japanese lesson plans might entail.

Somewhere bowing in your general direction,
Andrew Joseph
PS: within the schedule above... I have written about the ancient form of Japanese money there - the Ryu... mostly because it was part of Shibata-sensei's GIVEN name (not his family name) of Ryuichi and I wanted to know what it meant. He had to think about that, but said Ryuichi meant 'gold coin - number one'... which meant he was the first born male child... a treasure. I'm sure now as then, that the Japanese do put some thought into their kid's names... most culture's do, I suppose... but to have a name where everyone knows the meaning? That's cool. Mine isn't so obvious now, but I was named Andrew because Prince Andrew in England had been born earlier, and it was a way to become more a part of British society where I was born. I named my son, Hudson, after the Canadian explorer Henry Hudson who helped found the Hudson Bay Company, which, thanks to its ability to show a profit in the hunting and fur trading industry, helped make British North America a viable outpost, eventually leading to the formation of Upper and Lower Canada and Canada itself after Confederation in 1867... right about the same time that Japan began to open up its door's officially to foreigner trade when it ousted the shogun and brought back the Emperor.
By the way, depending on the Kanji, the Chinese alphabet used by the Japanese, 'ryu' could also mean 'dragon'... which was how I utilized it when I 'japan-ized' my name. 
  

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