What is a senpai?

I was walking to the daily chapel service surrounded by junior high boys in their school uniforms. Usually you can tell the first year students from the second and thirds because of their size. There is one boy in particular who defies that stereotype: he's about 6 feet tall and close to 200 pounds (91 Kg for everyone else in the world!) at the age of 13. I met him during the entrance exam when he was in a group of three boys that cycled in to be interviewed by the panel of teachers that I was on. I remember him because he dwarfed the two other boys by at least a foot (33 cm)!

Anyway, he was walking to chapel service and joking around with his friends by poking them in the ribs. At one point he poked a third year student by mistake. The third year student, apparently a member of the same rugby or touch football club, swirled around to see who had provoked him. The giant first year could have used his size to stand up for what he had done, whether or not is was a mistake. Instead he repeated the phrase, "gomenesai senpai" a few times. It means, "I'm sorry mentor". The 3rd year student had a sense of humor about it and teased him back. But I managed to take a "cultural snapshot" in my mind of something very Japanese.

Thanks to Confucius, Japan and much of Asia for that matter, has great respect for elders. And we're not talking about just wizened wise people. As you can see in this encounter, even a boy two years older commands the respect and deference from a younger though bigger boy. Heck, I think even one year would make a difference. In other encounters in Japanese society, the question, "how old are you" bears more significance than it does in the USA. The questioner wants to know where s/he stands in relation to you. I've heard that people only ask your age if they're interested in becoming friends. So I think that is common in the USA, too. Have you been to Japan and taken a similar "cultural snapshot" to mine? What would a "cultural snapsot" of American values on age look like? Please write me your comments!


Treatment of Dogs: revisited

After I wrote my March 13 entry on the treatment of dogs in my neighborhood, I received an email from a friend of mine in Seattle. She had lived in Miyazaki, Japan for about 3 years and had a different observation of how dogs are treated in the country. Here is what she said:

by the way, your most recent entry on the blog about the dogs in Japan ----- maybe you haven't seen much of this because of the area you live, but dogs in Japan have a horrible life. A lot of the city folk seem to take pretty good care of their small breed dogs, but larger dog breeds and those more out in the city (like in miyazaki) spend most of their lives tied up to a very short chain outside on a slab of concrete. And any dogs that are found wandering on the streets are picked up by animal control, held there for only a day or two - and if no one has called them to claim their missing dog they are immediately euthanized (ACTUALLY! I don't think they even use euthanization to kill them - they use a more inhumane method). You would be very shocked to hear the number of unclaimed dogs that are killed every year and when dogs go missing, generally speaking, their owners aren't very motivated to try and find them). A lot of people will also buy a puppy because they are so cute but once they are full grown not give them the type of care they deserve. And the majority of the population (I would wager it's a big majority) doesn't even KNOW that dogs require a good deal of exercise and stimulation in the every day lives.
oh my gosh ---- here I am ranting and going on and on! But this topic in particular with regards to Japan is one I'm very disturbed by. And friend of ours in miyazaki actually spends all of his time trying to help people understand dogs more and what their needs are, and when he sees dogs in a horrible condition he actually goes to the house in the middle of the night, cuts the chain the dog is tied to, and takes him home. It sounds drastic but from what I've seen from living there I consider it "rescue".

In a later email to me, my friend had a little more to say:

you are more than welcome to use my comments on your blog if you'd like. And
it doesn't matter if I'm anonymous or not. I didn't truly learn about the plight of dogs in Japan until after 2 years when I started renting a house outside the city's downtown, was able to observe my neighbors, and start building strong friendships with Japanese people who knew what was going on. and if you think about it, there;s not a whole lot of education going on in society to teach people about environment, animals, social problems, etc. the school system doesn't inform students about anything beyond their standard subjects and parents who were never taught how to care for animals have no way of being able to teach their own children. I feel like to best way for people to learn is word of mouth and "foreigners" teaching in Japan have a great opportunity I think to use their English conversation classes as a great springboard for bringing up topics that Japanese people are either afraid to address or have no forum for doing so. And in the process, they are learning English. Some of my old students have said that there are so many things they wouldn't dare say in Japanese, but if it's spoken in English it somehow gives them more freedom to express their thoughts. Very interesting.

As a language teacher, I was most interested in the last thing she said. I think it reflects a second language "ego" enabling people to assume a different identity with the second language they are speaking. Here is an example of a linguistically aware blogger using the term. What do you think? About the treatment of dogs in Japan? Or about the ability of a second language to give a person an outlet to say things they wouldn't otherwise say in their first language?

Having lived over 8 years in foreign countries, I realize that my perspective at 8 months is far different from what it would be after 3 or more years.
Or living in a country indefinitely. I'm glad to have friends like Valerie who can set me straight. So again I want to qualify my comments in this blog as being temporary observations instead of hard facts or opinions.

Thanks for reading this far. I've got some new ideas planned for this blog in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more details!


A Midwestern Craving Assuaged

On my walk back from the barbershop yesterday, I stopped in a little bakery. When my girlfriend was here, she really enjoyed the freshly made bread that some Japanese like to make toast from for breakfast. So I thought to get some more bread. The baker was busy in the window preparing some dough for the oven. I asked if he had any bread. He was happy to see me and went into a detailed explanation about Japanese's preferences for bread versus Europeans'. That's about all I understood.

I got the impression that he was discouraging me from buying bread at that time of day or from what was still available. So I bought two rolls: one filled with cheese and the other a whole wheat one. Being almost 8 o'clock, I was hungry so I ate the cheese roll as I continued walking home. Mmmmm! It was so delicious! "Why does this cheese taste so good?" I asked myself? I realized my answer: either it had been too long since I have eaten cheese or it was unusually good cheese. Growing up in Illinois, cheese and other dairy products were part of my everyday diet. Here in Japan, I still have milk and yoghurt, but not much cheese. It is rather expensive. 

As much as I think I am maintaining my Americanness and feeling detached from the Japanese around me, it is moments like this that surprise me to realize that my diet and probably other things are changing during this experience. So when I return to the USA, please go easy on me! I'll have some readjusting to do. Once again.


New Features on the Blog

Hey folks, check out two new things that I've added to my blog to enhance the sense of community and make it easier for you to keep in touch with me.

*The first is a Frappr map. That's the green box right below my profile name. If you click that link, it will take you to a world map where you can put a pin on the location you're visiting from. You can give as much or as little detail as you want, for privacy's sake.

* The second is a subscription feature by bloglet.com. It is located beneath the Frappr box. If you type your email address into the field, you will be signed up to receive an email whenever I update the blog. This might be easier than trying to figure out that XML syndication trick from a previous post.

I always appreciate your feedback on what works and doesn't, what's hot and not about the blog. Thank for keeping touch! Idrissou the fish loves to look over my hands as I work on the blog. He's doing great. Perhaps the next feature will be a 24/7 Idrissou-cam!


Farm without all the pictures

I'd like to show you pictures of Gilda and my farming experience near Kumamoto. Gilda and I were busy and working in dirt all day, so it wasn't conducive for holding a digital camera and keeping it clean. We stayed with Mr. Tokunaga and his wife. While we were there, his daughter came with an entourage of friends and their children. One of her friends was from Berkeley, California and just fascinated with the organic farm Mr. Tokunaga was trying to run. She took a lot of pictures of us and promised to send me some. Still holding out for them. Tell you what: I'll post my story without pictures now and then add the pictures to this entry when I get them. At that point I'll post another entry and direct you to see them.

Here's my journal entry from March 24th, our first full day on the farm.

Wake up to the rooster and read the Bible Lesson. Breakfast at 7, Ryo and Yoko watch TV with each meal, it helps to keep the conversation going actually, giving us something to talk about. Work starts at 8:30 am with weeding theh onion patch. Every 1.5 - 2 hours we have a break so the day goes by quickly. Will all the days be like this? It was so good to be outside in clean and sweet air; I shed off all layers today, down to my short sleeves. Spring is here. Kumamoto was 1ÂșC cooler than Okinawa today, so we did right in choosing a "hot" vacation spot! With good conversation with Ryo, I forget to clear the dishes and help in the kitchen. Need to remember this. Ryo-san and I talk about the on-the-surface differences between Japan and USA like obesity, cental vs space heating, gun control, of course Bush, whaling, and dolphins. I'm glad that WWOOF brings two very different people together so we can disagree about about some things for a change. But don't get me wrong, Mr. Tokunaga is a very kind man who takes good care of us. We need more people like him!

Gilda got to regretting our 1.5 days in Chiyoda, so we talked about changing our itinerary on the way back from Tamana and the Tokunaga's. With phone calls to Aki in Chiyoda and consulting the train schedule, we can squeeze in another 1.5 days on the way back.

Tokunaga-san has two retriever dogs: a black Lab and a golden. The black lab is a male chained to a pole all day, the golden has a fenced in area. At 5 each day we are to walk the dogs. However, Gilda and I soon find out that it doesn't work that day. Cooped up all day, the dogs RUN US! At first I tried to restrict the black lab with a tight leash and commands of "heel!" but then I decided that I should let him run. So I ran along with him, up and down the rice fields. "Blackie" as I'll call him, had to do his business and duty along the way so he kept his nose low and lifted his leg as he was running sometimes. Funny. I tried to run faster than him, just to give him his "walk's worth". After 30 minutes of running up and down the rice fields, Blackie finally slowed down and started to walk. Gilda's Golden was into sniffing and sitting for some reason. We were given strict instructions by Mr. Tokunaga not to let the two retriever dogs interact with each other. I suppose they couldn't handle any puppies at the moment!

After the dog walking, Gilda and I got to philosophizing about which dog we would rather be: one chained to a limited area but free to see its surroundings, or one fenced in but free to roam within 4 walls. Gilda and another guest staying there said they'd rather be free to roam in the fenced area; I would rather have the view and be restricted to the chain. Which would you prefer? Write me your comments! Until next time when more photos come in!


New School Year, New Look

Yes, this is still my blog. If you've been reading from the very beginning (Nov 04), you'll know that I change my template every so often. How did you like the iPod template? On this template, you'll be able to see my profile, send me comments, and interact with my blog more like Blogger intended.

Its been a while because I've been on the road, more like on the rails, for the past ten days. Gilda and I used a Youth 18 ticket to ride the train from Nishinomiya to Hiroshima then to Tamana back to Hiroshima and then back to Nishinomiya. The trick about the Youth 18 ticket is that you can only take local and rapid trains. So our trip to Hiroshima was 6 hours and the trip to Tamana in Kyushu was almost 9 hours. Gilda and I learned the hard way that the ride can be quite stressful on an empty stomach! On the long train rides, we found that Scrabble was a great conversation starter with our seatmates. First time, we played with a graduate student who was reading scholarly articles on organic chemistry with words I couldn't even pronounce. So we had a good game with him. When we pulled it out on the trip back, our seatmate didn't speak English but we found out that he was a graduate of Kwansei Gakuin University in the 60s. What interesting connections!

In the hills of Hiroshima, we visited Gilda's dear friend Aki & family. It was valuable to see with my own eyes the town that Gilda lived in for two years. It brings a lot of warm memories to her, so now I can listen with a vivid picture of what she's talking about. We were there for a day and a half: too short to see all of her friends and co-workers. We experienced a Japanese tea ceremony as a gift from one of her former students. I was very impressed with the precise, calculated movements that the host of the tea ceremony used to serve us. This is a centuries-old tradition that is being kept alive today by cultural custodians like Kazue-san. Do you know a "cultural custodian" in your own community? What do you think that tradition contributes to the your community?

We visited the high school where Gilda worked and went out to dinner with the conversation students that Gilda used to teach. The last time Gilda was in her community of Chiyoda was 2004. Returning to a significant part of one's life for just a day isn't always enough. As we boarded the train for Kyushu island, Gilda looked out the window for some time. Perhaps she was reflecting on her life there as a JET teacher for two years: how things have changed, lives moved on, divided by an ocean. Suddenly she was able to rekindle the fire of friendship but not allow the flame to grow and warm her before moving on.

We arrived at the Tokunaga's farm in Tamana, Kumamoto Prefecture to begin our 5 days of farm work. Gilda didn't know what to expect as she'd never done WWOOF before; I knew that we'd have 6 hours of work a day and 3 delicious meals to nourish our work. As we settled into our accommodations for the night, Gilda brought up the idea of going back to Hiroshima after our farm work was done. She put in a call to her friend Akiko and got the go-ahead to come back for a visit. Gil gave me a warm smile. She had more happy moments to look forward to during whatever kind of hard or easy farm work that was in our near future.

Stay tuned for the next blog entry about our farming experience in Kumamoto, visiting an active volcano, and experiencing O-Hanami (cherry blossom viewing)!

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA