Scooter vs Japan

Japan: This Shit’s Weird | December 16, 2015

This is a follow-up to another post, What I could never get away with in Canada. In thinking of what to write there (oh so long ago), I found myself noting other rather strange things that take place elsewhere in Japan. Some are funny, some are annoying, some just are. I’ve had to actually split this, since the list was getting long and I’m still working on a few items.

So let’s get this ball rolling.

Obligatory Toilet Comment

This one’s pretty high up on the list of weird bullshit I keep having to deal with. Washiki toilets are a traditional style of toilet in Japan. Different from the poop analyzing robot toilets that we all know and love, which have heated seats, are self sanitizing, play music for discrete disposal, and clean you (I’m literally not making any of this this up), washiki toilets require the user to squat over top like some kind of animal.

Because it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have a comparison shot.

Ok. I should be fair, since I guess these kinds of toilets are pretty common around the world. But not in Canada! So every time I’m presented with one of these things, I kinda tilt my head in confusion, decide that I don’t need this in my life right now, and then look for a western style toilet.

Anyways, these are pretty common still, for god knows what reason. You’ll see them in malls and office buildings, and in many tourist areas like hiking rest stops and at temples and shrines. But often there will be a western toilet in the next stall over, so it’s not that big a deal.

When I started in the Junior High, where I teach three days out of the week, I was presented with a rather unpleasant shock; the staff bathroom only has washiki toilets and the student bathroom was under construction. I half joked, saying that I simply wouldn’t have to go that badly, noting that I pretty much refuse to cross that line unless I absolutely have to.

It’s not like I don’t understand how to use these kinds of toilets. They are pretty simple after all, and we did talk about them in my Japanese classes in high school. I just refuse to use one when at all possible. I live in the 21st century, where mind blowing advances in science and technology pretty much take place on a weekly basis. In this 21st century, I shouldn’t have to shit into a freaking hole in the ground.

Update (from when I started writing this): About a week ago, I finally broke down while at a bar. As I suspected, it wasn’t that awful. But as I suspected, I am not in love with these monsters and still refuse to use them where there is literally any option not to use one.

Japanese Tests

A stark contrast to the previous weird thing, Japan is known for the mad test-taking skills of their students. But there are a few funny things about the tests.

First off, multiple choice tests seem to be done primarily in katakana, one of the script writing systems in Japanese. Instead of choices being listed as A, B, C, D, and so on, I keep seeing Japanese tests list answers in katakana and according to Japanese writing mechanics. So instead of following the alphabet, answers are listed like this:

ア (a) イ (i) ウ (u) エ (e) オ (o) カ (ka) キ (ki)

And so on. I guess it’s not that surprising that another language has different ways of doing things. It’s just one of those head tilt moments while you process what’s happening. Although I do see alphabetic tests as well.

Something else with tests is the quality of production. In Canada, any time I had a test in school, it was always in black and white, probably photocopied a zillion times, and mostly plain text with minimal decoration. Maybe there was a table with simple black lines, maybe there was a little matching drawing, but everything was pretty ghetto. And if we had a short quiz or a listening test, it was usually done on on our own paper.

Nope. Japan. Clearly not to be outdone by the West, Japanese tests seem to be pretty all out. Full color pages, elaborate graphics, page dressings, the works. And good paper. Like, really high quality, fairly thick stock. Even the simplest worksheet or quiz (which is premade by the teacher and is far more than a simple lined table) is well made and printed on quality stock. Even the most simple, non-dressed up test is well made compared to some of the carp I saw in Canada at every level of education.

Oh Japan. You almost make test taking fun.

School Lunches

Another fun school topic is school lunches. In the West, this conjures up images of cafeteria line ups, a noisy room filled with screaming kids of really any age who are either fighting, smoking, gambling, or all three, and something like poutine or a cafeteria tray with a single fish stick and something resembling fruit.

America!

And as for teachers and school staff, perhaps they bring some lavish meal in and eat it in their office or teachers’ lounge, next to the bottle of desk bourbon they need to get through the day. Nope. Not in Japan. Well, I guess you could bring your own meal, but that’s not the point.

In Japan, there is this thing called kyushoko. This is a pre-prepared lunch that all students and teachers eat, perhaps prior to high school but including kindergartens and daycares. And I don’t mean just lunch. No. It’s far more complicated than that. Kyoshoku is a fixed activity in schools, carefully fashioned by a company in town to meet the dietary requirements of students. Certain mandates dictate the specific caloric intake of each meal and the kinds of foods to be made available, and this seems to be taken pretty seriously. But strap in. It gets weirder.

So kyushoku arrives some time in the mid-morning, freshly prepared at the kyushoku centre, the separate and dedicated building used for the administration, preparation, and distribution of these lunches to the surrounding schools. The food is transported in massive metal containers, which are all individually labeled and portioned for each class (or teachers’ office). The food is then brought to each class and portioned out by the students, where it is eaten in their classroom (more on that in a moment). Kyushoku is also delivered with the appropriate dishes, dense plastic trays and bowls which are quite hilarious and age inappropriate; ours have little pictures of balloons and flowers on them.

This one’s a bit more involved than my lunches (no tea), but you can get the idea. Also, bonus points for the giraffe milk that 50 year old men have to drink.

This is where it gets a little crazy. Don’t like something in your kyushoku? Too bad. Kids are encouraged to eat their entire meal, being taught from an early age not to be picky eaters. Want something more, like a snack or a something to drink besides the individual milk? Try again. As a toss up between food allergies and healthy eating, it is heavily discouraged that you ever bring other food with you. Think you’ll get a larger meal because you’re a full sized adult? Not so much. Teachers and staff eat the same portions as the kids, which can be as small as around 500 calories in elementary, though we sometimes have a little bit left over (emphasis on little).

Not my students, but this gives you a bit of an idea how this plays out.

Moving along, The kids dish up one another in this hive-mind fashion that could only take place in Japan or prison. Their teacher also dishes up, and everyone waits until everyone is seated and ready. One student will then call out each item (more at elementary than junior high) before calling out itadakimasu and everyone starts eating. If you’re not eating with the kids, you’ll be in the teachers’ office with a number of other staff, where things are a little less gonzo… like, no unison itadakimasu chant or calls to make sure everyone has every item.

Once done, regardless of where you ate, everyone fills up the containers with the used dishes, packs everything up, and, get this, washes and then flattens their milk carton. Seriously. This is crazy, even for a culture that is big on recycle. And no, I don’t mean flatten like crushed. I mean, half the time, milk cartons are literally opened up, pulled apart, and laid flat. Shit’s crazy, and surprisingly hard to do. Obviously, all Japanese people know how to actually unfold all the seams in some perfect reverse-origami fashion, not simple tear them open with my barbarian fists like I did for the first month. I kind of have the hang of this now, but I still end up tearing the thing open like a damn animal half the time.

Oh, remember how I said that kyushoku was a fixture in school? So important is it for the kids to eat together and fill their various roles, that when I asked about starting an English lunch group once a week or so, I was shot down. It is more important that these kids take part in the kyushoku performance than it is they receive extra help or recreation.

Anyways, bizarre as it may be, kyushoku is actually pretty cool. It means I don’t have to prepare a lunch everyday, and it gives people a chance to eat a variety of food. Especially for foreign teachers, this is great exposure to a variety of Japanese dishes and sides that you simply don’t get when eating out. Eating with the kids is also a good chance to spend time with them, while eating with the staff shows you a little of what Japanese office life is like.

Kyushoku Milk

Image not found

This one goes a little further, so I thought I would touch on it. Aside from the bizarrity and comedic value of this as a whole, something about this puzzles me. See, I was under them impression that Japanese people aren’t big dairy eaters. Most parts of Japan are quite small and thus there isn’t a lot of room for dairy cattle, so it’s just not a part of their lives. But I was also under the impression that Japanese people are a little lactose intolerant (like, more than normal). Aside from ice cream, there really isn’t any diary around, and it isn’t a part of daily cuisine. Yet every day, every kid and their teachers has a decent sized carton of milk.

Oh yeah. And there’s a special tab you have to open to push the elabprately collapsing straw into. Don’t bother trying to tear it open like we do in Canada and drink from the spout. Only failure lies that way.

The Classroom

Japanese classrooms, and schools, are pretty similar to the West, but also pretty different. The chalkboards can go up, down, and turn (they probably are heated and squirt water at you too). There are these chalk brush cleaners in every room, and all rooms at every level have coat racks and cubby holes for students to use. But those are only aesthetic differences. There is an entirely different culture surrounding the classroom that’s quite different than in the West.

Anyone moderately versed in Japanese culture probably knows that the kids stay in their homeroom and the teachers move around (whereas in my Canadian junior high and high schools, the students are the ones who move from class to class). And you probably heard that students clean the school themselves. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Da na na na, dee

See, Japanese students are the masters of their domain. The classroom is theirs, not the teacher’s. It is there home, their community, and their responsibility. This is why the kids eat lunch in the classroom. This is why the teachers are the ones who move. This is why students stand up during class to greet or dismiss the teachers every period. This is why the teacher doesn’t clean the chalkboard. This is why the students clean. When you walk into a Japanese classroom, it’s like walking into a kid’s bedroom, except with no rock posters, less clothing on the floor, and hopefully no porn hidden under the chairs. You are on their turf, and there is a whole culture and community at work.

That’s pretty weird and different from Canada. Sure, we had homeroom when I was a kid, and students made noise and hung out during class breaks. But it was never our space or our time. The classroom belonged to the school and the teachers, and desks and chairs were up for grabs by whoever sat in them or took them. Even if you have a seating plan, you could take any chair or desk and move it around. Oh yeah. Japanese students have their own desk and chair… like, their name is on it, making it theirs.

Teachers’ Office

Last one about school… I think.

So when you think of the teachers’ lounge/office/whatever you want to call it, you probably think of something like this:

You are probably thinking this is where the teachers go to blow off stream, have a stress smoke, or even get a swig of sweet office whiskey. You are probably also thinking that it’s this forbidden zone where no child shall enter.

Nope. You’d be wrong.

What you’ll find is this:

All the teachers and staff sit in a single room (usually) with their desks facing each other. Papers are strewn everywhere, CD players and extension cords thrown around the room like toilet paper rolls, and at least one teacher whose desk looks more like a box fort than a piece of office furniture (so I guess it is kind of what you’d expect). In fact, this is about what every Japanese office looks like.

Oh yeah, and the students come and go pretty regularly. They always wait by the door until invited in, but the fact that a child can come and go as they please is truly bizarre, given how off limits these places are in Canada.

Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of weirdness. It’s an office and people work there Of note though are the mancatchers. Yeah. Mancatcher. In ever school’s office, there is a steel pole with a curved ring on it, literally used to subdue a dangerous person (or play pranks on the other staff). There are also separate entrances for staff and students. The staff door is usually right next to the office, while the student’s entrance is a ways away. For those, there are even specific doors for specific grades. The grade 1 students at my elementary use a specific pair of doors, while the grade 2’s use a specific pair of doors that are right next to the grade 1’s, the grade 3’s… You get the idea. There are 6 sets of doors that are specific to the grades, and never shall a student use the wrong door.

you-shall-not-pass_clink_large

You shall not pass!

That’s about it for this installment. In the next post, I’ll hopefully talk about how lazy Japanese kids don’t get jobs, how everyone in Japan is a raging alcoholic and refuses to admit it, laugh at Japan thinking it’s in the centre of the world, and start foaming at the mouth when I talk about banking.

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About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.

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