Archive: The pathos of pompoms


Rush hour station floor
Tired feet eddy around a
Discarded pompom.

From here on December 5th 2012.

Archive: The causes and effects of intelligence


I like learning. And I like teaching. But until I taught, I never thought about what it meant to learn, and how differently we do it.

We learn differently as people, and we learn differently based on how we’ve always learned. I’ve sat through explanations that were crystal clear in the eye of the explainer, but which made me feel like such a fool. I’ve probably given a fair few too. Hazards of the profession.

But the cultural thing, that gave me a fresh surprise of late. I don’t think I’d ever really questioned the principle that you never put someone on the spot unless they are capable of doing the task, unless they know the right answer, could be a model to others. But then I read this.

A Japanese classroom

The scene of Kousuke’s triumph (possibly) – by Bobo12345 via Wikimedia Commons

The writer describes an American researcher’s shock, in a Japanese maths classroom of the late ’70s, at seeing the only kid who couldn’t get his 3D cubes straight called to the board, his mounting anxiety as the boy continued to fail, his certainty that any minute, the boy would dissolve into tears. And his astonishment when, at the end of the period, the boy got it right, concentration dissolving into a smile as the class dissolved into applause. Kousuke had got it!

For all my alleged cultural smarts, this was something I had completely failed to pick up on. But once I thought on it, I realised that this is something that I’ve encountered in Japan, just without recognizing it. And every time I’m called on to do it, I just freeze. You see, sometimes in my drumming group, I’m asked to do something, badly, in front of everyone. And every time, I, like Stigler in the article, feel so nervous I can’t possibly concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing. My palms sweat, it’s hard to grip the drumsticks… it feels like an ordeal, and I’m glad when it’s over.

Like Stigler, I feel a little bit like I’m being bullied. Like I’ve been singled out for the dunce’s cap. And I feel this despite knowing that these are not people who would do that. They’re not sadistic. They’re just trying to help me learn.

When I was growing up in the UK, it was inevitably the brightest who were called up to the board. And while it should feel like praise, it felt no less awkward than Stigler did sitting in the back of the classroom perspiring on Kousuke’s behalf. Why could that be?

The answer may lie in another idea in the article, this time courtesy of Professor Jin Li. Li has spent a decade recording the conversations of American and Taiwanese parents about their school life, and has come to the conclusion that where parents in America tend to attribute success to smartness, Taiwanese parents speak of practice, persistence and struggle.

I’m ever-wary of grand generalisations, with their tendency to gloss over individual differences and slide neatly into stereotypes. East vs West is a neat catchphrase, and has been exploited too many times by people with nefarious agendas to have any real meaning. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that Japanese classrooms are perfect.

But here’s what I do think it’s important to take from this. If smartness is a cause, is inherent, it’s fixed. You either got it or you don’t. Smartness as the result of effort is something each and every individual can control. Being singled out, in these two situations, then becomes a very different proposition: show us how smart (or not) you are so everyone can hate you and/ or laugh at you vs stick at this and you’ll get better at it. Studies have been done on just these two mindsets, and found no correlation between mindset and school success until students encounter a challenge or setback. And it’s there – the change of school, the move to university, the task you just can’t get your head around, Kousuke’s 3D cubes – where it pays to try harder, try another way, get help, and not to say “I’m just not cut out for this”.

So next time I’m put on the spot, I’ll be channeling Kousuke*, in search of my untapped potential.

* Kousuke’s real name probably isn’t Kousuke. Sorry.

From here on November 29th 2012.

Archive: Nobility in nudity


Almost every day, after work, I get unashamedly naked with a bunch of strangers, and it’s great. It’s one of the things I missed the most about Japan.

There’s just something about a bath that’s so much more worthwhile than the hastily-grabbed shower. Doesn’t have to be a long soak, just enough to feel the warmth embrace you, soothe your frazzled nerves, massage your weary muscles, and… ahhhhh. They’re never more welcome than in winter, when you spend most of your time being just a little bit too cold. And it never hurts that there’s usually some spurious health benefit to the bath, minus ions and all that.

When I’ve tried to share this love of baths with non-Japanese friends, the results haven’t always been positive. Those that have taken the plunge, so to speak, have come out singing its virtues. But more often than not, they’ve looked at me as if to say, what did you people do with our Caroline? Who is this dirty perve in a grubby kimono? Why would I want to wallow in other people’s dirt?

Macaques share a hot spring bath

There are seldom any monkeys in my bath (by Asteiner via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, as to the dirt part, they’ve thought of all that. Japanese people wash before they get in the bath, leaving your soak guilt free. As to the nudity thing, thanks to the ‘civilising’ Christian influence of the late 19th century, baths are now gender-segregated. Except for the naughty private baths, where all bets are off. But that’s another story.

As for the nudity, well, they’re not exactly dens of pervy iniquity. People wash themselves, much as they do when they’re on their own. If you can get off on a woman with children your age making sure she hasn’t missed any crevices, then feel free to stare.

And that’s actually another thing I like about the whole scenario: reality is a nice reality check. We’re absolutely bombarded by images of women’s bodies on a daily basis, and it can be hard not to compare your own lived-in flesh with the tweezed, tweaked, airbrushed creatures you see all around you. But in the baths, what do we see…? Two arms, two breasts, bellies, a pair of legs and a bottom at the top; minor variations in size, shape, resistance to gravity. Pores, hair, spots, some wrinkles, bruises, scars, the odd varicose vein. All women, all different. Nothing ethereal, nothing ghost-like, no eerie sheen to the skin. All solid. All real. All beautiful.

It makes me feel proud to be one of them.

From here on November 25th 2012.

Archive: Death by hobbies


Any situation from which there’s no escape can become a kind of torture, and speaking exams are no exception. It’s probably rare enough to get an incisive answer from students speaking their own language; it’s nigh on impossible when the examiners’ job is to assess just how badly prospective students can’t do the thing they’re applying to learn how to do.

The procedure is as follows: ask the same limited set of bog-standard questions that nobody in the real world ever asks (What are your hobbies? What is your favourite place in your country? What do you want to be when you grow up? etc) until the student changes their mind and goes away. At the same time you should write down comments (such as “HA!” and “PFFFF”) to enable graders to discriminate in the case of borderline candidates, before assigning grades based on a rubric that is specifically designed to be wildly unfit for purpose, as giving teachers something to rant about between interviews has been positively correlated with a higher rate of sanity retention.

Bored souvenir seller

No no, go on… (by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so you ask the same twelve questions in slightly different orders until the faces stop coming and the voices in your head fade away. After the fifth interview, the highly localized front-of-head pain sets in, the one that feels like a small but persistent imp is using the space between your eyebrows as a pin cushion. After the eighth, the nameless, unquenchable hunger. Come ten, feeling is lost in the lips and tongue. Any more than twelve and the shaking sweaty fears set in. The last teacher who did fifteen had to be stretchered out.

If left in charge of timetabling their own students, teachers will frequently start strong, rally, and end on a high, leaving those they imagine will bomb to hide in the middle and hopefully ride a wave of goodwill to glory. However for those of us that are wise to these ruses, there is only one thing that can jolt us from our cynicism: epic student failure.

I recall many a surreal placement test in which a pushy parent hovered behind their genius progeny, lauding their every achievement, top of their every advanced English class, their mastery of the art of public speaking, their rhetorical genius… while I waited patiently for an answer to the question “What is your name?” My most memorable testing moments would also have to include the elaborately beautiful gothic lady who burst in spectacular tears when asked to describe a picture story, then spent over an hour telling me, in near-perfect English, how worthless her English was.

But the best ones are where you actually, in spite of the system, conspire to learn something. For surprise value, nobody can quite top the Korean student who had a massive freak-out on learning that his speaking partner often slept with the fan on in summer. Apparently Koreans believe that this can cause ‘Fan death’, the only possible explanation for why people sometimes die alone in their beds with the fan on. I had no idea, and nearly fell off my own chair, thus creating a kind of culture shock domino rally. 

From here on November 25th 2012.

Archive: My second job


Recently I seem to have signed my weekends over to what was supposed to be my hobby, but is quickly becoming my second job. Albeit one that doesn’t pay me any money.

On my way to my second job early this Sunday morning, I looked around the train to see the people around me spending their Sunday mornings asleep on a train. One in every three was a schoolkid in uniform, on their way to their second jobs.

Which is strange, because if you ask schoolkids what their hobbies are, the number 1 answer is always “sleeping”. Push them to give an answer that isn’t essential to their continued existence (breathing is not a hobby either, in my book), and they may sullenly admit that they have been playing violin since they were old enough to support their own necks and are auditioning for the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on the weekend. Perhaps where we’re going wrong is in assuming that extracurricular interests are necessarily fun things that one does to relax.

My students’ recollections of high school are rich with tales of their club activities, the friends they made and the skills they learned, not only relating to that hobby but also the skills of teamwork, the socialisation into the world of seniors and juniors (senpaikohai) that will be so important in their future lives. But their stories are also surprisingly full of regret, obligation and sleeplessness. If they genuinely got out as much as much as they seem to put in, Japan would be a world leader in everything. It’s no wonder they look so surprised when I say that I did music, journalism, film andJapanese society at university, in addition to being a founder member of the Comatose Club. In Japan, there is no dabbling.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy taiko. It’s been raising the hairs on the back of my neck since I first heard these guys, Kodo of Sado Island, back when Japan was still a semi-mythical country for me. Coincidentally, they’re a pretty good example of the kind of dedication I’m talking about, the apprentices living together in communal buildings for two years before the initial selection to the group, and probably going for runs and cold showers in the mountains at 5am. Forget it if you just like hitting stuff.

Needless to say, our group is nowhere near as serious. But we do have four performances on four weekends this November. And there’s nothing more painful than getting up on a day without work earlier than you would get up on a day with work.


Funabashi’s nashi pears: so delicious, they spawned this terrifying yet much-loved mascot-thing (by Neodaisuke, via Wikimedia Commons)

Still, I bet you’re thinking it must be pretty rock and roll, huh? Well, let me walk you through today’s performance. We opened the festival with a rousing performance of Yoake, then pushed all the drums out the way and went and stood in the cold in our traditional tiny shorts for another 45 minutes while some important business was taken care of. One of those cookie-cutter patronising-polite women with the squeaky voices introduced the twenty important-looking men and one woman sat in a circle up on stage, along with their impossibly complicated positions in the local hierarchy. One after the other, they stood up to make speeches, each less engaging than the last. The head of something or other division boasted that Funabashi’s nashi pears are more delicious than Ichikawa’s, the next town over. A smaller fellow, who’s fittingly only a vice-head, earned a smattering of applause for arguing that Funabashi’s carrots are second only to Hokkaido’s. A third man riffs on eggs, and then it’s time for all the children to come forward. Carefully please, it is easy to fall on flat, obstacle-free ground.

The suited men and woman all stand up, and start throwing rice cakes at children, not in anger but in festivity. Well-mannered chaos ensues. Remarkably, the children are actually leaving the scrum once they’ve caught a prize. Perhaps they don’t like rice cakes? Or maybe they’re ill? Next up in the fun is a 120kg tuna, which is convincingly dead and flopping around wetly on stage. It’s sliced open expertly by a town official with a samurai blade, before being sold off, raw of course, price depending on cut. By the time we finish our performance, only the head is left. The kids are lining up to have their photo taken with it.

Now that anticipation has had time to mount, Shibaroku taiko take to the stage. And we rock, and I do my best not to mess up too badly, and it’s all going so very well until I hear that annoying squeaky voice cutting through the drum I’m perfectly happily hiding behind. She’s scented fresh foreigner blood.

There are three things I hate about the inevitable gaijin interview, and they’re no longer that I stick out like a sore thumb or that I can’t answer the questions. The first is that I am usually the last person to have entered the group, and hence absolutely the worst person to call up for interview. Ask the sensei– he can tell you useful things about who we are and what we’re doing; my main focus is on not getting too much in the way. The second is that we play kumi-daiko, which means ensemble drumming: each member is as important as any other.

The third brings us neatly back to what I was whingeing about just the other month: bloody stupid questions. Here’s one I didn’t include in that particular rant: “What was your first impression when you came to Japan?” Like the others I listed at such vitriolic length in those earlier posts, honest yet prosaic answers will get you nowhere. “It was really hot”, or “You don’t bury electrical wires like we do in England” cause nothing but a chill in the air and one more stamp on the deportation point card. Well, if you won’t play the game…

It also doesn’t take into account the fact that I first came to Japan twelve years ago. Twelve years. That’s a long time in which to both forget and to learn. I can tell you a lot more interesting things from the perspective of a longer-term resident who speaks the language than any wide-eyed newbie could ever dream of. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. But then that would be rocking the boat.

I was half-tempted to say something either really stupid or really offensive. Surprised that everyone here has two arms, two legs and a head? Surprised that nobody carries swords any more, that you can’t see men in skirts with shaved heads lopping limbs off insolent peasants during your morning commute? Surprised by how ignorant people here are about other cultures, hmm? But loyalty to the group won out and I said nothing. Literally nothing, which was probably a little awkward for Squeaky-chan. But then not saying is the flower, ne?

From here on November 11th 2012.

Archive: Mukanshin

A Japanese woman bows to elders

Please never hold the door open for me again (via Wikimedia)

Once upon a time I stopped, at the entrance to Marukyu supermarket, to help a young woman who was struggling to fit herself, four huge bags and her crutches through the door.

I know now that this was the wrong thing to do. Not that she got aggressive about it, because that’s really not the done thing. Sumimasen, she said, her head fluttering uncertainly in a bow of undecided depth. Moshiwake arimasen, and backed away from the scene of the crime. Osore irimasu, and was gone. Thrice times sorry, but not a thank-you in sight.

I was perplexed. I hadn’t intended to offend. I couldn’t quite conceive of a world in which doing things for people got up their noses, but it’s true that long experience seems to bear out the fact that here, random acts of kindness are no kindness. They come with strings attached.

The theory is that in a culture that views relationships of all kinds as ones of reciprocation, you’re not so much helping a stranger as tying them to an unwanted relationship, and giving them the burden of reciprocation as a kind of cherry on top. Further, acknowledging their difficulties draws attention to them, thus shaming the individual. Never mind that modern life makes it extremely unlikely that I’m ever going to see Ms Crutches again, let alone be in need of her aid. I just hope she’s gotten over the shame by now.

There are two broad reactions I’ve encountered when I’ve been clearly at a loss in Japan. Occasionally (well, once), I’ve had people go far out of their way to get me to where I need to be. I should probably be suffocated by the weight of shame and reciprocal obligation. In the overwhelming majority of cases, though, I’ve been scrupulously ignored. Mukanshin, they call it: disinterest.

Coming back to feelings of shame, which would you consider more shameful: falling off your bike and getting trapped under it and being helped up, or falling off your bike and getting trapped under it and seeing five, six people sail serenely past, eyes fixed forward, conveniently not seeing the only other person on the road for miles around? Coming as this experience did only a few days into my first job in Japan, it’s almost surprising I’m still here.

Japan has a culture so elaborately polite that even Japanese people mock its complexity. Imagine my surprise, then, when some years later I read an article in a Japanese newspaper arguing that Japan could learn a thing or two from Britain in terms of politeness. What they meant was that in Britain, we are polite at random, most particularly to the person who has just stood on our foot. Or at least we’re expected to be, when we’re not braying into mobiles about why we didn’t change the cat litter, or listening to loud garage music at the back of the bus.

I think I’ll just have to add this one to the list of things I’ll never, ever get used to.

From here on November 10 2012.

Archive: You may now turn over the paper


A gym hall, the late ’90s. A faint smell of sweat hangs in the air – a memory of exertion past, or anticipation of what is to come?

“You may now turn over the paper.”

Swissshh. And so we do.

Read the poem below and answer the question that follows. You are advised to spend thirty minutes on this section.

Ambulances – Philip Larkin

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Analyse the poem with reference to its form, language and meaning.

I did not analyse the poem. What I did was cry, hunched over the wooden desk, flooding the crisscrossed graffiti of ages indiscriminately, SKINS RULE OK and METALLICAAAAA alike, shoulders heaving, trying not to let it show, trying not to be the laughing stock, trying not to dampen the precious exam paper on which I was to write nothing.

And I thought I’d gotten away with it too, until a voice cut through the tangle of my thoughts as I tugged my school bag out of the middle of the bottom of the sea of possessions outside the exam hall. “A word, Caroline. If I may.”

I think I told my teacher that my grandmother had died, which she had, and that I’d been to her funeral, which I had. We never spoke of it again.

Did I cry because the poem, speaking as it does of the nearness at every moment of our lives of death and grief, made me think of granny? Was I reminded of the cosy darkness at the back of the room where we coloured things in, played in the rocking chair and drove small sports cars recklessly in circles in the shadow of granny’s friend’s Bill’s chair, over whose shoulder you could read the strange newspaper with the shiny-faced naked women and the big shouty headlines?

Or was it something altogether more selfish that seized me that day? Was it a nascent sense of how grief would impinge on my own young life? An infantile sense that the text was chosen just to spite me, unshakeable in my belief that such things could only have happened to me?

When this moment came back to me this morning, unannounced and unbidden, it was painted in clear, clean lines: background cause + immediate cause = weepy effect. The more I thought about it, however, the less sure I became. The me at the funeral was small, and in the way, and wearing borrowed clothes. The me that sat in that exam hall was, for all the misdirected angst and emotion, beginning to bounce tall in her silver Dr Martens, starting to dream of brighter futures and dreaming spires. It feels like there were years between the two.

UK exam hall

The Great British Exam Hall (By WahTee (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Memory is a curious thing, something that bends itself to needs we don’t even know we have, without even letting us know it’s doing so. Hear a story often enough and you’ll start to believe you were there. Believe you were there and hey presto! you were the life and soul, a raconteur sans pareil. Supply it with a disjointed story and narrative will grow up like bindweed to fill the cracks.

And there was no exam hall, no ancient desks, no sea of bags. Nothing rested on this exam, really. But there again you see, narrative shall out. What is it they say? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

I still cried, though. And I still don’t know why.

From here on November 7th 2012.