For the first three innings, I was confused…by the brass band, the beer girls in flourescent mini-skirts carrying kegs on their backs, and the rousing renditions of Nirvana and Joan Jett in the background. I could’ve sworn I was at a regular baseball game! I also could’ve sworn that the Japanese fans were cheering “Let’s go team!” I was so sure that I even started cheering along with them (much to my Japanese neighbor’s amusement). But then I remembered that despite all appearances otherwise, I was in the Tokyo Dome and not at an American stadium; the cheer was not, “Let’s go team,” but an elaborate rhythm and rhyme chant using different players’ names. For effect, every shout of the name was accented by the thumping of little plastic Giants souvenir bats. Once I caught on, I became the biggest Giants groupie in the stadium (albeit underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt…didn’t think to wear a suit to the stadium). Go Nioka!
Baseball, like everything else here, has been a whirlwind. I am here in Japan with 198 other American teachers on a three-week crash course in all things Japanese. At our orientation in San Francisco, Kyoko-san (the head of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund program) reminded us, “This is not a paid vacation. You are professionals, and this is a professional learning opportunity.” Lest we forget her solemn reminder, she has crammed our days full of lectures and official shmoozing opportunities and daily speeches about our newfound ambassadorial roles. Most of this is fascinating! For instance, today two members of the Diet (Japanese Parliament) came to explain how government works in Japan. A benign informational lecture quickly devolved (or perhaps evolved) into a a heated debate on state entitlement, the need to reform the Japanese pension system, the travesty of Japanese students dropping to sixth in the world in math and science, and whose party is letting the people down more. The two speakers, Yuji Tsushima and Wakako Hironaka, are in opposite parties (conveniently both with liberal in the name), and both are brilliant, former Fulbright scholars in the United States. Hironaka-san is also one of only a handful of women in elected office in Japan! Although I didn’t understand all the nuances of the political debate (accents can be hard to decipher), I did get this: despite obviously fierce disagreement, they were having fun, laughing and ribbing one another the whole time that they were arguing over policy. A refreshing break from the fierce partisanship of our own elected officials.
Since arriving in San Francisco on Sunday for our orientation en route to Japan, the red carpet has indeed been extended to us. From four-star hotels to elaborate sushi feasts to visits by important policy makers and intellectuals, we are being treated as very few teachers usually are. Over and over, we are told how revered teachers are in Japan; after the extravaganza Kyoko-san has planned for us, I believe it! For our first full day in Tokyo, we were treated to our own private kabuki theatre performance, complete with watching the dancer apply her geisha-like make-up. In another lecture from the Ministry of Education, we were surprised to learn that education in Japan has “serious problems”! Those problems, however, are not that students can’t read or drop out rates are high. Rather, the “serious problem” is that only 50% of middle school students say they like math or like studying! According to the Ministry of Education, this is obvious evidence of the rapid decline of Japanese schools. Perhaps it`s also why over 70% of Japanese parents say they are dissastified with their children by the time they reach middle school (in the States, it’s only 15% of parents who say this). The Minister of Education told us that, to him, the most worrying social problem facing Japanese children is not their math scores or dislike of homework but the fact that they are not really loved by their parents. And just like in the States, where we know of the strong connection between home life and academic performance, Japan is stuck. How do you make policy to improve someone’s family life?
So for most of each day, we participate in a crash course on all things Japanese and here the variety of solutions being attempted in Japan to heady problems like parents not loving their children enough. But we are in Japan, and most of us are itching to get out of a lecture hall and into the city. So when we can, we’ve been sneaking in our own frenzied tour of Tokyo. Our time in Tokyo got off to a rocking start on Tuesday when Naoki, a young Japanese college student in a Rolling Stones t-shirt, tried to show us the town. JFMF organizes students and Fulbright alumni to take all jet-lagged 200 of us out to dinner our first night. My group was welcomed by the smiling pseudo-punk rockerNaoki. Very friendly, but he couldn’t find his way out of the hotel. So instead of heading out for okinomiyake (apparently a kind of Japanese pancake), we instead stumbled across a harvest festival at the local hybrid Buddhist/Shinto shrine. There was acrobatic drumming high above the crowd and about 100 men and women in kimonosand yukatas dancing in Tai Chi-like movements. All around the drumming and dancing were school kids and food vendors, giggling and chowing and heading into the shrine to wake up the gods by ringing the temple bell and then making a wish. We prayed, we gawked, we ate some takoyaki (octopus balls), and then we lead Naoki to dinner. We wound up at an udon restaurant where, after flying for twelve hours and not necessarily thinking to put on clean socks, we had to take off our shoes to sit on tatami mats. Yikes! Over the course of dinner, we taught a chopstick novice how to eat, we celebrated a 65th birthday, and we grilled Naoki on his studies next year at Hope College in Michigan. He was adorable and terrified of the five teachers he had been assigned, but by the end of dinner, we were fast friends.
Jet lag took over Tuesday night, and after exhaustedly ironing my “professional attire” for the next day’s lectures, I crashed hard, only to wake up at the crack of dawn. I went for a stroll around the Akasaka neighborhood where we are staying. At 5:30 in the morning, what had occurred to me the night before finally found words: Tokyo is like a city on mute. Cars have quiet engines, silent horns; people shuffle silently around the city in stylish clothes; even the crowded subway is silent (save for loud, tall, obnoxious Americans). Even people’s speaking voices are different. I’m falling in love with the gentle cadences and smiles of our uber-intelligent hosts. I’d always scoffed at the seemingly demure nature of Japanese women, but something about the quiet and melodious tone of voice calms and entices me.
In the silence of early morning Tokyo, I strolled for an hour through gardens and convenience stores. I found the best vanilla yogurt I’ve ever had; I found a bamboo forest in the middle of Tokyo; I even found a young man worshipping at temple by whispering into his cell phone. But then I got hungry. Not yet ready to eat sushi for breakfast, I instead headed back for breakfast, the first of our daily feasts. Kyoko-san is meticulous not only about mingling Japanese delicacies with American culinary disasters but also about forcing us to mingle. One morning we were randomly assigned to numbered tables, another day we were grouped by state, another by grade, tomorrow by subject area. She is making sure that we at least get to mingle briefly with the motley crew of 198 other teachers. The morning socializing also reinforces just how big a group 199 teachers is. Every morning I am meeting someone I have not seen before!
Within this group of new faces, a group of younger women has gravitated to one other, and we’ve become a good exploration crew. The 100 Yen store one day, baseball game the next…we’ve even hunted out night life. That was perhaps the funniest moment of all. Ten of us, twenty- and thirty-something female teachers, plus one middle-aged male kindergarten teacher from Vermont, went out last night. The ladies wanted to find a hip sake bar and sing some karaoke, Jeff wanted to…look cool walking around with ten young women. Unfortunately, all the cool places, according to guidebooks and the hotel concierge, are in one of three neighborhoods—Ikebakura, Kabuki-cho, or Rappongi. We were expressly told to stay away from these neighborhoods. We were told they are not safe for tourists or Japanese, but David Satterwhaite, a US embassy man, also laughed that we’d probably go there anyways. But we’re good guests of the Japanese government, and so the eleven of us spent 90 minutes wandering the Shinjuku neighborhood looking for a bar, any bar. And 90 mintues of aimless wandering wound us up at, where else, Kabuki-cho. At a restaurant—a closing restaurant—not a bar. Where, in the empty fourth floor of the restaurant, we tried to order glasses of Wandering Poet and instead wound up with a $70 magnum-sized bottle of sake. It was last call when we ordered; it took us so long to finish that two-foot tall bottle of sake that the waitress fell asleep on the dish washer. The giggles overtook us (helped on by excessive amounts of sake, no doubt) and we wandered back through the dangerous streets of Kabuki-cho to the metro. Our verdict: Kabuki-cho is nothing more than a PG-rated red light district. The government doesn’t want us to go there because then we’ll see that—gasp!—Japan isn’t perfect.
That’s the adventure so far. Tomorrow morning it’s the fish market, some group sightseeing, and getting lost in Old Tokyo. I am dying for temples and gardens, but that will have to wait for our one free day. We got to experience one temple today, but our guide Keiko-san warned us that it is the most commercial of Tokyo’s temples. Even so, the giant Boddhisatvas and incense burning and rhythmic gong left me thirsting for the reverence and silence of temples and gardens. That is my pilgrimage for Saturday, our last day in Tokyo before heading to the Northern hinterlands of the Shimokita peninsula.
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While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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