Monthly Archives: November 2014

Guilty Until Proven Guilty Until Innocence Accepted

Last week I was falsely accused of a crime that I was thinking about committing because it was something I’d frequently threatened to do.

Last Thursday, at the beginning of my sixth period class, one of my worst students was playing Some Kind Of Game (not a real game) on his PlayStation Portable. What caught my eye was 1) the bell had just rung so he should have been getting ready and 2) it was blue.

One of my classroom policies is that if I see you playing a game in class, I confiscate the device and, if you’re lucky, return it at the end of class. However, after the blue PSPs came out, I said that if I saw a blue PSP in class, it was my present and I’d never give it back.

However, this time, I told the student to put it away and he did. Sort of. I was still thinking about taking it, but I didn’t.

Then, soon after class, he came down and asked me to give him his PSP back. I pointed out that I didn’t have it and sent him back to the fourth floor to get it. I thought it was a strange encounter: had I blacked out and stolen the device but didn’t remember; or had my guilt at thinking about taking it manifested itself as actual theft in the form of invisible demons? But then stopped thinking about it before my thoughts got too crazy. Until Monday.

On Monday, my birthday no less, the same student came back to get his PSP. He had apparently 1) forgot that he’d put it in the desk; 2) had imagined me taking it and 3) spent the weekend bitching to his parents that I was a thief who had kept his PSP over the weekend. I told him, once again, I didn’t have it and told him to go back up to the fourth floor or to lost and found or find out which of his friends stole it.

Finally, today, I had that class again and the same student was there playing with his blue PSP again. I told him to put it away and he did. Then, at the end of class, I told him to make sure he had his PSP and, if he forgot it, not to blame me.

Oh, and I told him to tell his parents I’m actually awesome and not a thief.

Speak Cool

Today the Japanese press announced the death of one of my favorite Japanese actors, Ken Takakura, also known as the Coolest Man In Japan (not a real title but he was).

Most people in the West will know him from one of two movies: Mr. Baseball with Tom Selleck and Dennis Haysbert, and Black Rain, with Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia. Neither is a particularly good movie, but I recommend Black Rain mostly because it shows off almost all of Takakura’s skills as an actor. He had a powerful screen presence, an excellent voice and he could play both bad ass and humble.  Black Rain also has, in his last role, the late Yusaku Matsuda as Sato, one of the best villains in film.

I also recommend Mount Hakkoda where Takakura plays a captain in the Japanese Imperial military in a dramatization of one of Japan’s worst mountaineering disasters. (Warning, you will feel cold watching this one. Keep the heat turned up.)

Finally I recommend the much quieter (and much slower) Poppoya, in which Takakura plays the stationmaster of a train station that’s literally the end of the line. The station is scheduled to be shutdown and he suddenly starts having visions of his late wife and daughter. Very quiet, and a bit slow, but Takakura’s presence carries this movie.  (Also, it takes place in winter. Once again, you will feel cold.)

A friend of mine also recommends  Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza, starring Robert Mitchum and Takakura. Oddly, I’ve never actually seen this one, so I’ll be looking it up myself.

Although he’d slowed down his movie making, one of the things I liked about Ken Takakura is he never went on the countless variety shows. You only saw him at his best, not as a goofy stage prop to actors and comedians who only thought they were cool. I also like that he had a sense of gentleness and yet could turn tough and make both states seem perfectly natural.

He also, unfortunately for some, could make cigarette smoking look cool in his Speak Lark ads for Lark Cigarettes:


Full Service Confiscation Group Punishing Education

The worst thing you can do to punish Japanese students without getting physical is separate them from their group. The second worst thing you can do is separate them from their phones.

But I repeat myself.

The Japanese, in general, are very group oriented. Even in a large company, people who attended the same universities will form private drinking clubs separate from people who attended other universities. It would be the equivalent of getting a job with Monsanto right out of college and then being invited to join the Harvard Graduates Club while the Kansas State University Graduates Club is having much more fun (whilst bitching about Kansas University, or University OF Kansas, or, ah, hell, who cares? They are in a different club).

In school, sending a student out of the room, even in high school, is a very powerful act and even the coolest of the cool troublesome students don’t like it. They will do whatever it takes to come back in the room, even if it means actually opening the textbook for a few minutes. In junior high, it’s more problematic because, according to the law, the student has both an obligation and a right to be in the room.

The other day, in an 8th grade class, one of my worst students was staring at his crotch and smiling. Since this is not something normal people normally do, I went over to confiscate whatever he was playing with (the whole time hoping it was a phone). As soon as I got to his desk, a black iPhone disappeared into his blazer pocket. After some brief arguing and me setting up a “lunch date” where he’d get to do some extra work he handed me a blue smartphone. I said thanks and told him to give me the iPhone.

He refused and I said, more or less, “It’s a date! See you at lunch!”

I set the blue phone on my podium and, a few minutes later, had to go across the hall and make some copies of the textbook for students who’d forgot their textbooks and when I returned, the blue phone was gone.

Group homework ensued and, oddly, I managed to get the black iPhone out of the student’s blazer pocket in the best pickpocket move I’ve ever done.

This led to a meeting after class where I ended up with both phones and a convoluted “meaning of is is; if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” explanation about how the iPhone wasn’t really turned on (in the junior high, kids may have phones but may not turn them on) and therefore I couldn’t take the phone plus it was actually the blue phone that was on and I coudl take it. I snorted “bullshit” under my breath, pointed out I can tell the difference between a black phone and a blue phone and ended up keeping both phones until the end of the day.

While I had them, I wiped the phones clean with a micro-fiber cloth and, luckily for me, both boys turned up a minute after final bell to get their phones. I promised that if I saw them again during class time, I’d keep them for a week.

Also, after my full service confiscation, even teachers are trying to get me to confiscate their phones so they can be cleaned.

1117 YoHa 39 37

One of the curses of Japanese is that every letter and every number has multiple ways it can be pronounced but only one pronunciation is correct. That curse is also one of the fun things about Japanese.

This is called Goroawase and is often used to make phone numbers or tell jokes.

Warning: the next few paragraphs involve something resembling math.

The number 1, for example, can be pronounced “ichi” (as in “Ichiro” or “number one son”); i (as a long “e”); hito; hitotsu; or wan (as in “one”). The number “2” can be pronounced eight different ways, but for today’s purpose we’ll only use “ni” (as in the Knights Who Say Ni). The number 9 has five pronunciations, but for today we’ll use only “ku” (as in “coo coo”). When you put it all together, you can get puns. November 29, for example, is “Good meat day” because 1129 is “ii  ni ku) (ee knee coo) or “good meat”. If you say it European style you get “niku ii” or “Meat Good” which shows one of the failures of the European system.

My birthday then becomes “Veeery Good Day” Because with 1117 you have “i i i” (a stretched “good”) and “na” (pronounced with the “a” as in “father”) which is used for emphasis. But if you do it European style you get “Na iii” or “Noooooo”, confirming the failures of the European system.

My age, 48, becomes “YoHa” which isn’t funny at all. (It could also be “shiba” which also isn’t funny.)

Then you get more common jokes. 39 is “san” “kyu” or “Thank you”, which is very common in texting and social media. You also get 37 (mi na) or “everyone”.

The title of this post is a code that means Veeeery Good 48 Thank You, Everyone.

At this point, it’s bed time, so I best say “It’s time 43252 bed” or (It’s time for me to go to bed).

That Thing You Know Is Not What You Need Now

Today in karate class I spent most of the time relearning the routine I didn’t learn last week. I didn’t learn it because what I did this week is not what I learned last week.

Confused? So was I.

On December 21 I have the test for my sixth level black belt. This involves four katas (two basic and two that cause pain); several seated defenses against punches, kicks and knife attacks; defense against knives when the person’s up close to you and holding your lapel; defense against knives when two people are up close and holding your lapels; defense against punches when being held by two people; counter defense when the guy you’re attacking with a knife messes up his defense and you get the upper hand; knife versus knife fighting and, I think, but I’m not sure, defense against swords.

All this wouldn’t be so bad except, right when I think I’ve got it down, the plan changes. For example, last week I practiced eight seated defenses that start with me sitting in a chair when I’m attacked by a standing opponent. I thought I did pretty well and practiced those moves all week. Then, this week, I suddenly had to do different moves.

I don’t know if this is a deliberate technique of the style but it seems to have happened each time I approached a belt test, learn this, practice it, then do something else. Granted, technically I should be able to do any move or routine when called upon to do it, but it’s the equivalent of being told you’re having a test on subtraction and then suddenly being thrown into an algebra pit. (Which really does exist, I’m pretty sure.)

Next week, it will probably all change again. I’m feeling much more confident this time around than I did a couple years ago when I failed the test. I still make small mistakes that, added together, hurt my chances, but I have most of the basics down.

Now I just need to work on my leg strength by next month so the painful katas are a little less painful.

Great International Customer Service Sight Unseen

As I’ve written before, I’m a fountain pen fanatic. I’m also the kind of guy who clings to things long past their “best used by” date.

However, this past year I began replacing my old pens–one of which creaks when I write and one of which is corroding–with new ones that I hope will last as long as my old ones. This has sent me to Kickstarter for a pen from Scotland and one from Arizona based Karas Kustoms, which is one part machine shop, one part pen maker. I also ordered one from Edison Pen Co., an Ohio pen maker I first saw on Etsy several years ago before they became much bigger and better.

My problem is, if I buy things from outside of Japan, customer service becomes an issue. Anything that goes wrong becomes an arduous and expensive process of mailing and remailing and postage and filling out customs forms. This has been an issue the past few days, but I got excellent results that are worth writing about.

I recently got a 2014 Glenmont from Edison Pens as part of a special group purchase the company arranges every year (and as my birthday present). Once I got it, I sat down to put ink in it and start using it.

I filled the converter with ink and attached it to the housing and started to push some ink into the nib. A few minutes later I had a lot of ink on my hands and none in the nib. I tried dunking the nib in the ink and drawing it into the pen. I ended up doing a lot of twisting but got no ink in the converter.

The converter didn’t seem to be sealing to the nib housing and whatever I did I ended up with ink on my fingers.

I contacted Brian Gray at Edison Pens and he responded quickly. He then had the unfortunate job of diagnosing a pen problem in Japan sight unseen. I followed his suggestions and then discovered a hole where no hole should have been and sent a picture of it. He realized they’d attached the housing for a different kind of pen and immediately shipped me the correct version.

The best part is, except for a short wait, it’s the same service I’d get if I still lived in the USA. Unfortunately, it’s got me thinking about what the 2015 limited edition will be…that said, I actually haven’t had a chance to write with my new pen yet, so maybe I’d better wait before thinking about 2015 too much.

Side Note: if you like classic fountain pens, I recommend you check out Edison Pen Co. If you like a more machined look and steam-punkish pens, check out the Karas Kustoms INK and the Namisu Nexus.

The Ugliest and Most Expensive is Always the Fit

Every now and then I think Cody Lundin has the right idea and that I should just walk around barefoot. But I only think that when I try to buy shoes here in Japan.

Oddly, despite my height (and on occasion my weight) I can buy most of my clothes here in Japan. I have to watch out for sleeve and trouser leg length, but otherwise, except for jackets and coats, clothes shopping isn’t that much trouble.

There is, however, apparently a law in a room somewhere in Japan that declares that no Japanese foot shall be longer than a size 11 US. Unfortunately, I wear a size 12 1/2, which basically means I have to buy a size 13. (Yes, I pretty much resemble a tall person wearing short skis once I have my shoes on.)

For many years I still held out hope that I could find shoes my size in a regular shoe store but my hopes were dashed around 98% of the time. I took this to mean I have a 0% chance of finding reasonably priced shoes that fit. (2% totally equals 0%. Look it up.)

In most cases, the only shoes I could find that fit were either 1) ugly 2) expensive or 3) ugly and expensive. I remember looking around one store and then asking the clerk for certain shoes and being rejected every time. I finally asked if he had anything in a size 30 (my size in Japan) and he frowned a bit and then led me to a pair of silver and purple quilted Nike high-tops. They were so bright I’m pretty sure they could be seen from space. Since then I’ve learned that, in every shoe store, the ugliest and most expensive shoes will always fit me.

There are, however, a few stores that cater to large feet, but this creates a series of dilemmas:

1) The main store I use, Big-b, (link is Japanese) has an odd selection and can be expensive, especially for formal shoes. I not only have to pay a lot, I have to travel to Tokyo.

2) Buy the ugly shoes and a can of spray paint.

3) Order from the USA, but run the risk of buying shoes that don’t fit. This means I’m limited to brands I know have consistent sizes–Rockport, for example–which means I have to pay a lot for the same-old boring look. I also have to do some math.

4) Keep wearing a pair shoes until they are falling apart and held together with duct tape and super glue and buy shoes the next time I visit the USA. Unfortunately I’ve been told this doesn’t look very professional and can be rather stinky.

Every time I visit the USA, I come back to Japan with several pairs of shoes. Someday the customs guy is going to accuse me of being a shoe salesman.

Perfect Pitch and Sickly Sweet Songs that Sound the Same

Today, in high school English club, my job was to watch the club members listen to music. I also had to survive flashes of horror and flashbacks.

The reason I endured flashbacks is that, for reasons I’m not sure I want to know, the song chosen was “I Need to Be In Love” by the Carpenters. Now, although this was bad enough, what really shocked me was the reaction some of the students had when the very first note of each song was played. One student kept saying “Yes, I like that.” when the first note of “Top of the World” (I dare you to click the link and listen), “Sing” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” were played. It was like a nightmarish version of Name That Tune with teenagers. “Tom, I can freak the teacher out with just one note.”

Keep in mind, I wasn’t a big fan of the Carpenters, especially in high school, but at least I’d heard them almost every day from age three to age 15 (and then every hour for a year after Karen Carpenter’s death) so the notion that a Japanese high school boy born in 1999 could be a big enough fan to recognize each tune with only one note shocks me .

That said, a lot of bands find an odd second life here in Japan. One hit wonder Mr. Big has enjoyed a long career in Japan, including reuniting for a tour in 2009. Cindy Lauper remains popular and often appears on TV acting like, well, like Cindy Lauper. Jon Bon Jovi is also popular, especially thanks to a female comedian who used to sing a bad, yet oddly compelling chorus of “You Give Love a Bad Name” (You don’t need a link; it’s already in your head. Shot through the heart, indeed.)

Avril Lavigne also remains disturbingly popular.

As for me, I’m still stuck in the 70’s trying to songs out of my head.

And The Pain Was Brought

Two days ago I wrote something so crappy it almost made me kill a project.

As I’ve written before, because I don’t have enough to do and am a total moron, I decided to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) on top of this blog and my job. The results have been mixed.

First, it’s clear that in it’s current state, the “novel” may not make it to 50,000 words which means it doesn’t count as a novel. This is partly because the nature of NaNoWriMo seems to make you either over-write or under-write in order to meet the quota.

Second, in order to meet the word quota, I’ve been tolerating stuff that I know will eventually have to be cut. I’ve gone back and rewritten a few scenes to flesh them out but that’s caused other passages to be out of place and, in the case of a couple scenes, irrelevant. However, if I cut them out, I have to do that much more work to replace them.

Third, I am, on occasion, capable of producing scenes that are nothing but crap. I wrote three pages of one scene before stopping myself and going “really, DL, really?” I had to stop writing and think a lot more about the project. The next day, though, I rewrote the scene before the crap and wrote a scene after the crap that, mercifully, made the crap scene unnecessary. In fact, the scene has the unique pleasure of being both unfinished and useless. However, I’ve left it in at this point to keep the word count buffed up.

Thus far, for me, the most useful parts of NaNoWriMo have been 1) the discipline of making a regular time to write; 2) using free time to write instead of waste time; and 3) as a source of at least two blog posts, with at least one more to come.

I’ve missed the quota three times, including today and am now a couple hundred words behind “par”. Luckily the weekend in approaching and I can catch up.

However, the novel’s still on track to be too short, which means I need to sit down and re-rethink it. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t count toward the word quota.

Don’t Wanna Come Around Here No More

One of the odd twists of teaching English in Japan is that sometimes your worst students have the best English. The worst of those are the “returnees”, the students who’ve lived overseas.

Several years ago, I had a student who’d spent a good portion of his life in the USA. He hated being back in Japan so much he actually made his parents send him to a different school. One class he was there, the next class he was not and his friends said he’d gone to a rival school with a better building.

About that same time, I had a returnee who would finish his work quickly and then proceed to keep his friends from finishing theirs. If I assigned pair work, he’d make his partner do all the work while he slept. After several loud altercations involving me telling him to work or get out my class, he failed the term. This resulted in some attention from the Powers What Are at the school as they inquired how a returnee could fail English. I said he did it by being a “an obnoxious little shit” or “by lacking focus” or something like that.

Eventually he and I reached an agreement: as long as he finished his work and didn’t disturb anyone else, he could sit off to the side and sleep. Which he did happily.

In defense of returnees, they do tend to attract a lot of “why don’t you do this for me?” attention and they get tired of it. They also live in a culture where it’s not okay to stand out too much. I can tell, in almost any class of any age, who the returnee is because as soon as I give instructions, everyone in the room turns and looks at the returnee for a translation. That gets bad enough that I’ve actually told returnees that unless I ask them to translate, they don’t speak English.

The worst class, though, was my first year at the school. I made the mistake of calling my third year high school elective “Introductory English”. Every student but one was a returnee looking for an easy grade. I’d give them an assignment and 20 minutes later they’d all be finished and I’d still have 80 minutes to fill. They were pretty much like “Here we are now. Entertain us.”

It was good teacher improvisation practice, but it wasn’t a lot of fun.