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I teach elementary school and sometimes I play tag with the students at lunch. They being kids and I being a 42-year-old man, I will invariably tire out before they do. The first time this happened I was surprised when my request to take a break was met not with scorn or protestations but with cheerful acceptance. I was so ready to not be allowed to be tired that I had all sorts of excuses ready. But they weren’t needed because it’s OK to be tired in Japan.
I never even thought about the fact that you’re not really allowed to be tired in America. It’s not an acceptable excuse for passing on an event of activity. You’re supposed to suck it up and push past the tiredness. Have a cup of coffee or a 32 oz. energy drink and get to it. From childhood on, you’re just not supposed to succumb to fatigue.
Contrast this with Japan, where people say, “I’m tired,” after the slightest effort. Japanese people aren’t lazy, though. Far from it. They’re some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. (Often to a fault, sticking with outdated labor-intensive practices long after other countries have switched to more efficient methods. But that’s a different story.) Perhaps because they’re so hard working they’ve allowed themselves the luxury of being tired.
It’s funny, you’ll even hear kids say it. Kids as young as 8 will plop down after P.E. and say, “Whew, I’m tired.” They also complain about their aching hips and sore shoulders, something I’ve never heard American kids do. But it’s possible they’re just aping their elders.
In America, it seems that being tired is associated with laziness. You’ll never amount to anything if you slack off and shirk your responsibilities, so suck it up and get back to work. This is, for the most part, inconceivable in Japan. Everyone works hard and so everyone is allowed to be tired. It’s nice to not have to feel guilty for experiencing the natural consequences of physical exertion.
If it’s September it must be sports day practice. Every September, at the start of the school year’s second semester, my schools move into sports day mode. These few weeks of daily practice culminate in the big sports day, with all the parents coming out to see their kids in all their athletic glory. This happens at all my schools, from kindergarten on up, and I imagine it happens at the high schools too.
Although we tend to translate it as “sports day,” each school has its own name for it, and it can include words like “physical education” and “exercise.” Really, it has little to do with sports. There are no basketball matches, or volleyball. There’s no baseball or tennis or even sumo. No, the focus is on fun events, like three-legged races and tug of war. And yet this requires weeks of practice.
When I first came to Japan to teach English, I couldn’t fathom why this day—which they do every year without fail and which tends to always have the same events—required such intense practice. As a new ALT (assistant language teacher), I arrived expecting to teach but instead had to sit on the sidelines for weeks while my classes were cancelled in favor of what looked to me like unnecessary practice. Why the hell would anyone need to practice pulling on a rope?
OK, I got why the dance routine, human pyramid and entrance ceremony required some run-throughs, but bowing? These kids bow a hundred times a day. It seemed overkill to do rehearsals for all the guest speakers, bowing in time to theirs and going from standing at attention to at ease.
After three years, though, I finally get it. Yesterday one of the teachers asked me if we had sports day in America. I have been asked this question many times but this time she followed it up with, “So you don’t have a big event like this for the parents?” That’s the key to all the obsessive bowing and rope pulling and marching. They’re not practicing for sports day; they’re practicing for their parents and family members who will come to watch.
Practicing the three-legged race seems like it would suck all the fun out of it. But if this is a performance, then it all makes sense. Executing something difficult like the three-legged race displays the honed physical dexterity of the participants for those watching. Likewise synchronous bowing and marching.
From kindergarten on up, this is an event for the parents. It’s Japan’s version of the school play, except performed outside and with relays and human pyramids and folk dancing. Learning how to work as a group and execute motions perfectly in-sync really is that important to the culture here.
Of course, sports day is also about fun and having a good time. And, judging by the faces of the participants, this they certainly do.
I have had a number of different jobs in my 42 years. I have worked in record stores and coffee shops, in a toy store in the mall, and in a shop that sold precious things that I considered junk. I have been a writer, a copy editor, and a managing editor. And I have taught English in Korea and Japan.
Some people know what job they want. They come out of school with a career goal and they do that one job until they stop working. My father was a dentist, my mother a teacher. I have taken many jobs but I never felt compelled to do just one. Even my job now, teaching English in Japan, is the means to being in Japan, the larger goal. I enjoy my job but I adore the students more than I like teaching, honestly. I like being around them. I don’t know anything about pedagogy or methods.
My future career goals are similarly oriented towards staying in Japan. I need a job that will support my lifestyle. I’d like to teach at a university in Japan because I like talking about Japan and I like being in Japan. The idea of being in a learning environment does appeal to me too, but it has very little to do with wanting to mold impressionable young minds. I guess I’m more selfish than that.
This morning I was thinking about jobs I might have liked to do sometime but I’m middle aged now and realistically they’re not going to happen. When you’re young you think you have all the time in the world to try different things. You don’t. It gets away from you.
I make music and I thought it would be fun to do that professionally. Before going back to school to study Japanese I considered learning how to be a studio engineer. But music makes a nice hobby. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to make it pay for itself.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut because I liked space and Star Wars. In high school I decided I would be a psychologist because people felt at ease with me and wanted to tell me their problems. But I had too many problems of my own.
I will probably never be a professional novelist. Likewise a screenwriter, or surrealist, or soundtrack composer. Time is too short. These things, if they happen, are hobbies, personal challenges, Sunday morning dreams.
And that’s OK.
Summers are hard for me. I don’t do well in the heat. My ancestors come from northern Europe and have a genetic heritage honed during the Ice Age. In Japan, where summers are long and humid and very hot, my body has a very hard time. Every year it takes me a few weeks of horrible headaches and dizziness to get used to the change in the weather. But once I finally do, I find there are things about the summer that I really love.
Like with the other seasons in Japan, there are all kinds of special activities you really only find in the summer. I look forward to these as much as I do things like cherry blossom viewing in the spring, seeing the changing leaves in the fall, and drinking hot sake under the kotatsu in the winter. By far, my favorite thing about the summer is it’s festival season. Eat some festival food, drink some draft beer and enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere. The oppressive heat somehow just adds to it.
Japan is full of insects, great big things that sneak into your house god knows how and fall off your ceiling onto your face while you sleep, or jump out and say hello in the shower. Those bugs I can do without but there are some I actually like. Along with heat, summer days are full of the drone of cicadas. They start in before you wake and seem to go all night. The noise is incredibly loud too. Add to this the swarming clouds of dragonflies and giant praying mantises that hang out on your window screen and summer is just full of interesting insect life.
Summer is also the time in Japan for scary movies. In America it’s Halloween but in Japan, people traditionally told ghost stories in the summer to give people the chills. Also, Obon, the festival of the dead, is in the summer so it just makes sense. I always take the opportunity to watch classic Japanese ghost films in August.
Lastly, Japanese draft beer just tastes better when it’s hot outside. Japanese beer is pretty much all lager and dry and crisp so it’s especially suited for the season.
I’m anxiously awaiting the cooler temperatures of the fall but in the meantime I will make the best of the summer.
Often when jogging around my neighborhood I pass a house with a dog tied up out front. This is where it lives. It spends its meager life on the end of a rope, which gives it just enough freedom of movement to get from its doghouse to the edge of the driveway. I know this because when I walk by the dog insists on testing the limits of its existence by lunging at me, barking and snapping madly until that cruel yoke suddenly and sharply tenses.
I don’t hate that dog. I’d be cranky and wary of passersby if I lived my life in such bondage too. I don’t understand why people want an animal if that’s the way they’re going to treat it. There are plenty of people in Japan who bring their beasts inside with them and treat them as members of the family but this “living burglar alarm” thing sadly persists.
Recently I’ve been finishing my run on a hill behind a Buddhist temple. The stairs there make for a great workout and the path goes straight up to my neighborhood. It’s a shortcut as much of a workout. I also like running past the temple and through the cemetery. Both are beautiful and inspiring when I’m starting to get tired and thinking about stopping.
The past two times I’ve run past the temple, though, I’ve encountered a much more visceral reason to keep running. Much like the house, this temple has a dog tied up in front of it. It’s not all the time, only when the tending monk is out sweeping the grounds. Perhaps this dog leads a comfortable life inside the house connected to the temple. But when it’s outside, tied to a post under the temple on the edge of the parking lot, it seems that its chief goal in life is to eat my ankles.
The first time I saw it, I didn’t think much of it. I run past animals all the time. Some are more interested in me than others but they seem to be reserved enough to stay out of my way. Not this dog, though. It doesn’t seem to recognize that the temple parking lot is a public place. Public or private, it wants my ankles.
It launched itself at me from the shade next to the building, yipping and snarling as only a small dog can. I expected it to soon reach the end of its tether but it kept coming, its owner having helpfully supplied it with plenty of slack. I mustered a burst of energy and sprinted past it, looking back over my shoulder at the sweeping monk and giving him my best, “What the hell, dude?” look. He, in turn, gave me his best, “Whatever, dude,” look.
This morning I ran through the temple parking lot again. I saw the monk but not the dog. At least, not at first. I was thinking about the coming hill, which I had yet to completely best, and suddenly there it was, a ball of brown fur and teeth streaking towards my exposed shins, its eyelids peeled back in determination. Again I swung wide, avoiding the dog. Again I looked back at the monk, scowling, who was again staring blankly at my foreign face.
The most annoying thing about this incident is that the monk has yet to apologize. Japanese people apologize for the smallest thing. They apologize if you inconvenience them. Half the time you thank someone by apologizing to them. It’s ingrained and automatic, and the fact that I’m foreign has very rarely prevented someone from apologizing to me. If anything, they apologize first and then notice that I’m not Japanese.
It’s doubly surprising because he’s a Buddhist monk. Where’s the compassion? Your shitty dog has twice tried to attack me. That doesn’t merit mentioning? I thought about confronting him and demanding an apology but I don’t know what that would accomplish, plus that’s really not me. It’s easy enough for me to run around the parking lot and still access the cemetery path. Perhaps someday when I’m less emotional I’ll stop and chat with him, and mention the situation.
If that fails I can always kick the dog in its stupid little face.
Next week is my two-year anniversary in Taketa. As of August 5 I will have been working as a JET for two years. I’ve seen two years of students graduate. I’ve seen my goofy first-year junior high school students become goofy third-year students. I’ve figured out what’s expected of me and (I hope) fulfilled those expectations. I am rarely surprised anymore at work and I have enough safety measures in place that I can roll with most any punch.
I have also spent the last two years exploring Taketa, Oita, and Kyushu in general. I’ve been to Takachiho across the border in Miyazaki, Yoshinogari in Saga, the final resting place of Miyamoto Musashi in Kumamoto, and more. I’ve been to temples and historical sites, our own Oka Castle at least five times, and more shrines than I can count.
So of course I’m getting antsy.
I love Japan. I love where I live. And still I find myself googling things like, “ESL jobs China,” “ESL jobs Mongolia,” and even, “ESL jobs Korea.” Am I thinking of leaving Japan? Not particularly. Am I thinking of leaving Taketa? Not unless the pay is really good.
No, this is just itchy feet. I like to be in environments where everything is new, I suppose. I like the excitement of discovering a new place. Despite my protestations that I want to settle down and stay in Taketa forever, a part of me really does want to hit the road.
I’m committed to at least another year as an ALT in Taketa so this is all academic. The job could ostensibly continue for another two years after that, assuming everything goes well. And if it came down to it, would I really want to leave Taketa, or even Japan?
I guess I won’t know until the time comes.