Sunday, May 29, 2011

Driving in Japan

I had to renew my Japanese driver's license the other day. Went down to the bureau, stood in various lines for about an hour, got my picture taken, then had to sit through a 20 video on safety and following the rules. The video was very Japanese, with drivers debating whether to speed, or pass on a blind corner, run a stop; inevitably they decided to obey the rules, because they were rules. One lady finally decided to strap her kid into the child car seat, because it was the rule. She barely even considered fact that baby-becoming-ballistic-paintball-on-the-windshield was a great reason to use the damn belts.

But it got me thinking about driving here, and the differences. The most obvious one is that they drive on the left, like the Brits, with the steering wheel on the right. And the stick, if you have one (hee-hee) is on the left. Thank God the pedals aren't reversed. But it's the road size that will get you. Try driving 40mph on roads barely wider than your car, where you have to wait for other traffic before you can get around the telephone pole that was planted on the verge. 2-way roads barely one US-lane wide. I've been down lots of roads which were less than a foot wider than my car, and have even had to shut my mirrors to get between walls. Definitely a white-knuckle ride for any of my relatives or friends who comes to see me!

The drivers are actually very considerate, especially when you consider the number of cars on the road. If you need to turn across traffic, cars will often slow and flash their lights at you to cross ahead of them. Others will slow or even stop and beep their horns to let you into traffic from a side street. People actually watch out for bicycles, checking their blind spots before turning.

Of course, to make up for that, the cyclists are idiots! Bikes come shooting out of blind alleys at high speed, curving way out into traffic to make the turn, not even looking before they Evel-Knievel their way down the street. High school kids ride 2 and 3 abreast, blocking a 2-way street, assuming that cars will miss. I guess that bothers me the most. Yes, cars are legally supposed to yield the right of way to bikes, but the car driver gets a ticket if he gets it wrong - the cyclist gets a hospital stay or trip to the morgue!

Not to mention the numerous people (kids, students, mothers with kids in the child seat, men riding for the train), who ride against traffic, then glare at you if you can't move way out of their way because bikes are on both sides.

Makes me want to hook up a good set of air horns on my car. "Get the BWWAAAAAPAPPPAPPPPP out of the way!"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Japanese Junior High, pt 2

"Math and science offer the only common basis for comparing American schools to the rest of the world. Other subjects vary from one country to another… …tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were 'average' in elementary school, 'we appear to be "near the bottom" at the high school level…… Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.' - excerpted from a speech by Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., Ph.D. U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics.

This is one of the most common comparisons between Japanese schooling and American, the consistently lower test scores achieved by American students. But it’s comparing apples and oranges, really.

In arithmetic, Japanese elementary students drill, drill, drill. The entire education system here is set up to enhance memorization, data acquisition. In arithmetic, this is ideal. 1st graders spend the entire year on variations of the addition/subtraction tables. 2nd graders do the same with the addition of some multiplication. 3rd grade is the multiplication tables.

“The US does the same”, you say? Does it, really? Yes, but not to the extent Japan does. You can take any average American elementary school student and put them into Kumon classes (a popular math and kanji drill school here in Japan), and their test scores will improve, often dramatically. About half, maybe more, of J. primary schoolers go to some sort of classes in the afternoon evening, usually math, Japanese or English cram schools.

This continues into junior high school, where all students will study algebra, geometry and algebra II. There is no splitting according to ability at the public schools, everyone studies the same material. Advantage? Students can’t be lazy and take an easier level just because they want don’t want to work. “I don’t need math!” Disadvantage? In any class, a fair number of kids who are having problems understanding will get left behind, and sometimes even become depressed and give up. And most will need to go to cram schools 3 or 4 nights per week to keep up at school during the day.

But Japanese junior high students study for the test, not the learning. The entire education system is aimed at one thing: passing entrance exams into high school, and then the all-important university entrance exam. [Kinda sounds like student assessment tests in the States, eh?] 9th graders only study for the test to enter high school. If it won’t be on that test, it isn’t important to them.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention: nobody goes to high school without passing that school’s entrance exam or a city-wide entrance exam with point preference. There is no local high school, high school’s serve the entire city or ward, and are split up according to level. You want to go to a particular school, study a particular level? That test is on Feb 25, for example. And the other school you like might be the same day, so choose which one to challenge.

In my school district, you are given 30 extra points for your first-choice school’s test. This would help you if everyone else didn’t get the same points, but they do, so no real edge there. Where it kicks you in the cahones is if you fail your first-choice school, and your test score has to compete at your second-choice school against other students who set their sights slightly lower than you did, and are using that school as their first choice, with the extra 30!

It's actually possible to miss out on all 3 of your choices in this way, and end up having to go to one of the low, unpopular private schools, where you pay4 times as much, but only get 1/2 the education. Kinda makes you understand why some students stress out and do the jin-shin-boogie, and splat themselves across the front windshields of passing trains.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Japanese Junior High, pt 1

So, what's junior high school like in Japan? Well, in a word, it's a bitch!

Nearly every junior high school has a uniform. Traditional uniforms are sailor suits for girls (where did you think Sailor Moon and friends got their names?) and black matrix-like pseudo-military uniforms for the boys.
Modern-styled uniforms have slacks and blazers for the boys and skirt and blazers for the girls. Other than sports uniforms and PE uniforms, this is pretty much the only piece of clothing these kids will wear on weekdays. The only one. And since they are horrendously expensive, most parents only buy the one, with 2 or 3 blouses to wash, drycleaning the uniform 3 or 4 times a year at the holidays.

Now, factor in the following: the Japanese humidity, the fact that most schools do not have locker rooms, students don't shower after PE or club, and schools are not air-conditioned. I'm damned glad most Asians don't have the enzyme that feeds body odor-producing bacteria!

Seriously. Could you imagine how an American school would smell if we had 2-a-day practice and PE in a humid summer with no showers or air-conditioning? Would you want to?

And no accessories allowed. You cannot pierce your ears, cannot wear jewelry, no makeup, no curling your hair (if you have naturally-curly hair, you will have to explain it to every new home-room teacher), and your hair has to be black. One of my students was taking a medicine that turned her hair dark red, and her school tried to force her to dye her hair black (her doctor came to the rescue on that one). Hair length is controlled; girls must wear their hair in ponytails or pigtails if it's over the shoulder, but can't wear it in a bun (apparently showing the nape of the neck is a huge turn-on for Japanese guys, because it's forbidden).

So the girls rebel by putting the ponytails at odd angles; by slowly shortening their skirts, until you wonder how they get on the bus without "flashing pan"; by buying huge "loose" socks that make it look like they have Uggs for legs.

Oh, and choose your club carefully. Because you will not be able to change into another for the entire 3 years you're here. There is no such thing as a 3-sport letterman in Japan, because it's impossible to play more than 1 sport for your school.

This club will become your junior high school life. You will practice 6 days a week for at least 3 hours a day. School vacations will be vacations from class time, but you'll still need to go to club. Nearly all your friends will come from here. Your social life will begin here. And end here, if you quit. Suddenly, your friends will be too busy to meet and you will be a pariah.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bigotry and Disappointment

The sheer ignorance of most bigots, not to mention their sanctimonious ravings, just pisses me off. I'm beyond frustration, beyond simple anger; I am livid, apoplectic.

Want a surprise? I'm not talking about Japan, here. I'm talking about a YouTube video which I was referred to today of a "Patriotic Rally" and protest from Orange County in March. "The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA)... ...released a video of a rally organized... protest a February fundraising event held by an American Muslim relief group for relief work and charity in the U.S."

The invective was truly distressing. Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly said, "I have a wonderful 19-year-old son who's a United States Marine. (Now, this is a good thing. But then she goes on...) As a matter of fact, I know quite a few Marines who will be happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise." Jesus! That is an inexcusable thing for a terrorist (excuse me, elected official) to say. Especially since the attendees at this dinner are themselves American. "I'm being told to go back home. I'm actually from Fullerton, so I don't know where back home is for me", said one attendee.

"You beat your women and you beat your children!" Sounds like any cracker to me. "Why don't you go beat up your wife, like you do every night? Why don't you go have sex with a 9-yr-old, marry her." Not only hateful, but unoriginal as well. Any of the kids I went to junior high with could have thought up better insults than that, insults that didn't make them sound like ignoramuses.

One lady (at the 4'21" mark) says, "We are patriotic Americans and we love our Constitution, and it's gonna stay that way. 'One nation under God', not Allah." I guess she loves the Constitution, even if she doesn't understand it. "One nation under God" comes from the Pledge of Allegiance, not the Constitution, and wasn't even added until 1954. The First Amendment of the Constitution specifically prohibits Congress from establishing a state religion, while guaranteeing freedom of all citizens to exercise whichever religion they find most comforting. So, both hateful and ignorant.

Truly shameful!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Boogeyman (or girl)

One cultural difference that still blows my mind is... blowing my mind, er, nose.

Kids twitter (not on the internet like Sarah Palin or Paris Hilton, but in the trees, like birds) whenever I blow my nose. Now, this could be because I sound like a bull moose in rutting season, but that's not the only reason. A large number of people refuse to blow their noses, preferring to Hoover it down like oysters (which is why I don't eat oysters). I mean, I have a box of tissues in my classroom, and maybe 5 students out of 90 will actually use one.

For the rest, it's sssnnnnSSSSNNNNNNGGGGGGGG! Gulp!

And I gag. Hell, I even gagged just writing this. And I truly despise allergy season...


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oh, boy, soggy time begins. Like a toddler who just can't make it to the potty, I'm pretty much wet all the time. And, no, my name isn't Debbie, and I don't need my Depends.

It's rain time in Japan. Although rainy season doesn't actually begin until mid-June, I always consider May rainy season, since it rains a lot more than in June, when it never seems to actually rain....

But this year, we've got a nice twist. We're about to get hit by this year's first typhoon. The early typhoons usually stay much further south, maybe making it as far north as the Phillipines, since the northern Pacific is still too cold to provide any energy. An early typhoon, say #10 or so (they don't use names in Japan, just number them - makes sense to me, how would you like it if your name was Katrina?) would usually come sometime around early/mid July. But this time we've got Typhoon #1 doing the Pacific basin shuffle: it rode over the Philippines, toyed with the idea of heading to Taiwan, then turned and should reach Okinawa this afternoon. Early tomorrow it should make landfall in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's 4 main islands, and will either hit us or pass just south of us tomorrow afternoon. Then it'll head further east, probably passing just south of Tokyo, but possibly hitting the Tohoku earthquake zone (as if they don't have enough problems), and bringing massive amounts of rain to wash away the radiation.

All of the kids in this area are doing rain dances, of course, because typhoon means no school. And since they can't exactly play outside ("Let's tie Hiroshi to the flag pole and see how high he flies!"), their parents can't kick them out for playing too much video game.

"No Global Warming", my ass!

BTW, if you understood the "Debbie" crack, you should be ashamed of yourself! Go wash your mind out with soap!