Climate change threatens agriculture and infrastructure in Ehime


For a cloudy day in January, it is strikingly warm in Matsuyama city. Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, Japan’s smallest main island. Usually the coldest month of the year, Matsuyama is today enjoying a very mild 14 degrees C.

The warmer winter days are only one sign of the increasing grasp of climate change in south Japan. Regional typhoon patterns are also changing, and the combination of rising temperatures and increasing typhoon damage poses new threats to the region.

According to the Japanese Meteorological survey, Average temperatures in Matsuyama have risen by 1.74 degrees C in the last century. The Paris agreement set an international target to limit the global temperature increase since pre-industrial times to 2 degrees C, and if possible to 1.5 degrees C. That means that Matsuyama has already missed the UN’s preferred target.

According to the Ehime prefectural office, The frequency of torrential rain, flooding, heat waves and drought have all increased in recent years.  Ehime, one of four prefectures in Shikoku, has suffered damage to infrastructure and agriculture due to the increasingly extreme weather.

South Japan is no stranger to typhoons, but the storms are likely to become more dangerous as water temperatures continue to rise. Sato Yoshinobu, associate professor in the faculty of agriculture at Ehime University, says that rising sea water temperature has led to an increase in water vapour in the air, which is one of the main reasons for the heavy rain last year.

According to Sato, “The increase of sea surface temperature is mainly due to global warming.
According to the climate model simulation developed by the Japan Meteorological Agency (MRI-AGCM), the number of typhoons approaching  Japan is predicted to decrease. However the strong typhoons will increase. The strong typhoons with strong wind and heavy rain will result in landslides and cause fruit to drop”

Climate change is already affecting the success of crop yields in Japan. A 2017 report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) states that rice grains and fruit are failing to ripen completely. Popular fruits including grapes, apples and mandarin oranges are gradually losing their colour and the skins of the fruits are becoming softer.

Though the MAFF report shows that Japanese food production is already feeling the strain of climate change, Sato Yoshinobu believes that an average daily temperature of above 27 degrees C will result in very serious damage to both the local mandarin orange and rice crops, both of which are staples of the local economy. This past summer saw temperatures well over 30 degrees C, much higher than the temperature Sato considers serious for local crops.

Research stations in Shikoku are currently attempting adaption strategies to better cope with the new challenges to agriculture posed by regional climate change. For example, researchers are trying out delaying mandarin orange harvesting times and are breeding new varieties of rice better suited to the changing climate.

last year damage caused by typhoons and major storms increased considerably, and local residents were seriously affected. Takahashi Naoko, a teacher in Matsuyama, believes that the changing weather was particularly noticeable last year. “There was much more rain last year than before” she said. “In Ehime, the rain caused numerous landslides. It was very dangerous; the rivers overflowed, and sometimes roads were blocked by fallen trees or by the landslides. It really was a year of extremes”.

Most of the inhabited part of Ehime is by the coast, and the typhoons bring a hidden challenge to the region’s towns. The high winds bring salt spray far onto land, which then settles on agricultural plots. The accumulation of sea salt makes the land less productive, adding to the strain on crops already created by rising temperatures.

Not everyone is so concerned by changes in climate in Shikoku. Tanaka Hirohiko, long-term resident of Hojo in central Ehime, believes that the effects of climate change have been relatively slow in Shikoku and only poses a threat to the next generation.

Tanaka acknowledged however a number of noticeable changes. “The local fishing industry has been affected. I think that this is related to climate change, not overfishing”, he said. He is also concerned about local crops. “Because temperatures are higher now, there are more pests, which are damaging crops. This is damaging the local economy in general, as agriculture is such a major part of it”.

Tanaka also mentioned that a friend of his had completely lost his mandarin orange warehouse when it was swept away after a river burst its banks.

Shikoku is one of the most rural regions in Japan. Over 91% of Japan’s population lives in urban locations, but the cities in Shikoku are few and far smaller than those of the other three main islands of Japan. Because of this, the region is particularly sensitive to change in agriculture and damage to infrastructure between towns.

1

Mikyan, Ehime Prefecture’s mascot. Ehime is famous for its mandarin oranges, so much so that the local mascot is half dog, half orange. Ehime’s famous fruit may however be threatened by climate change in the future.

2

Mandarin oranges, or Mikan by the local name, can be seen all over Ehime in the late autumn. This year, they are still on the trees well into January.

7

Kashima Island, known for its tame deer. The island was one of many places in Shikoku that experienced more landslides than usual during last summer’s storms.

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Fishing is a major industry in Shikoku. Locals say that fish stocks are down, and powerful typhoons have damaged fish farms.

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The main street in Hojo, Ehime prefecture. Shikoku is one of the most rural regions of Japan and the local economy is heavily reliant on agriculture. This makes the region particularly vulnerable to climate change.

6

Agricultural land in Shikoku is situated on the thin stretch of land between the sea and the mountains that make up the majority of the island. The proximity of the cultivated land to the sea means that crops take the full brunt of typhoons. Crops get damaged not only by the high wind speeds and excessive rain, but also by the salt spray carried by the storms from the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Japan afraid to fix its overwork epidemic?


On an empty train station platform in rural Japan, there is a poster pasted on the wall with a message in imposing red letters: “Stop Karoshi!” Karoshi is a phrase meaning ‘death by overworking’, and the concept has become so normalised that it has entered the Japanese lexicon. The phenomenon, despite efforts to counter it, appears set to stay.

At first glance, the Japanese government appears to be working hard to battle the nation’s unhealthy working hours, but its current approach is at best superficial and at worst a purposeful avoidance of the problem.

The first case of Karoshi was recorded in 1969, and since then the number of annual deaths has not reduced. According to the Japanese labour ministry, 190 people died of karoshi in 2017. Almost half of those were suicide victims, driven by their working hours to take their own lives. Karoshi came more clearly into the public eye after the death of Miwa Sado, a journalist at NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organisation. She was found dead in her apartment still clutching her phone. She had clocked up over 159 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her death.

Attempts by the Japanese government to address the overwork epidemic have been widely ineffective, though the need for change is reflected in the statistics. According to a survey in 2016, 1 in 5 of the working population is at risk of Karoshi. 21% of the working population are working over 49 hours a week, yet work productivity is at the very bottom of the G7 and below the OECD average. Instead of benefitting productivity, the long work hours affect the health of workers to a dangerous extent. Even outside of the Karoshi statistics, there were 750 worker claims in 2015 due to brain and heart failure resulting from work stress.

Last June, the Japanese government introduced Hataraki-kata Kaikaku, a new plan to combat the country’s overworking problem.  Overtime is now capped at 100 hours a month, of which any is illegal without a written agreement between the employer and the employee. Though an average Japanese worker receives 20 days of annual paid leave, many do not take it as long holidays are perceived as irresponsible in Japan. Because of this the new government plan includes 5 days of forced paid holiday a year.

It takes little effort to see that these measures do not go far enough. 100 hours a month of overtime, if taken, equates to increasing weekly hours by over half. Due to the work culture in Japan, many workers will feel obliged to take overtime to the 100 hour limit. The same situation is likely to emerge for the minimum holiday policy. 5 days will be taken, but no more. In short, the new government plans do not address Japan’s overworking culture at all, but simply change the threshold from within it operates.

Hataraki-kata Kaikaku also has an intentional loophole. The newly imposed caps are all eliminated for those making three times the average income. According to the government, this will allow employees to be paid based on performance rather than the hours they work. The claim is however unconvincing. If the cap exemption were truly a performance improvement measure, it would be applied to everyone, not just the highest earners. The exemption suggests instead that the current system relies on overworked leadership and management and that the government has no sufficient plan to tackle this for what it is: a severe structural crack in the Japanese labour force.

There is a very good reason why the Japanese government is struggling to fix the overwork epidemic. Overwork is deeply ingrained in the nation’s work culture. Effort, responsibility to family and superiors, as well as self-sacrifice are age-old pillars of Japanese culture, and in the modern age these ingrained norms have been transferred from feudal lords to the modern corporation. In the context of modern business, the old cultural standards contribute strongly to Japan’s overwork problem. Unfortunately, culture cannot be changed by policy alone; it requires wide reaching social change.

Japan is however thoroughly resilient to the social change it requires, a fact which reveals itself on numerous levels of Japanese society. The country is often heralded as a futuristic tech giant, yet still relies on fax machines and remains a cash based society. Japan has often played a major role in setting international environmental goals, but has failed to adjust its over-packaging habits. In the political world, an apathetic Japanese electorate vote for leaders they are dissatisfied with to keep a status quo. Japan does not do change, and in the world of work, that resilience is harming it.

Victims of overwork are unlikely to reduce any time soon in Japan. The deep cultural norms that the phenomenon stems from make Karoshi very challenging to sufficiently resolve, and the government’s attempts seem entirely lacklustre. The measures even appear to intentionally avoid the heart of the problem – the work culture itself. That problem is exacerbated by Japan’s hard resilience to social change. Some change may however be on the far horizon. With high profile cases such as that of Miwa Sado in the public eye, the call for tangible improvement may gradually grow stronger.

The nightmare of Japanese names


What’s in a name? Or, in the case of Japan, what on earth is the name in the first place? I found out the hard way just how tricky a Japanese name can be.

Names are important. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have never forgotten a person’s name, even of those who he only ever met once. I assume the reporters meant twice, as with those he met only once, there’s no way to tell.  I can tell two things for certain from this: Lincoln understood the power of names, and Lincoln never had to learn the names of Japanese school children.

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie argues that  there is no sweeter sound to a person’s ear than their own name, and that someone who makes the effort to remember names will consistently make a positive impression on new acquaintances. With that in mind I set out on a task I neglected upon arrival in Japan due to just how challenging a task it is; I set out to learn all the names of my 400 middle school students.

At first I struggled to remember Japanese names because I couldn’t actually hear them clearly. Even now, if I ask a student what their name is, I hear this.

“Hello, my name is mffrruf *indecipherable mumbling*-mura. I am mfffirrlkkl years old.”

I get adult names now, but kids mumble to oblivion. The problem is, as a teacher, it’s the kids that matter. 400 names were going to be an uphill struggle, and we haven’t even touched why Japanese names in particular are such a pain to the British brain.

Remembering the sound of names that you have never heard before is half the battle. If you have ever lived somewhere with many names you are unfamiliar with, you will know how hard it is to get those names to stay in your head. They have a tendency to sit in a dark, rarely used, and slightly slippery corner of the brain for about a minute, before sliding stealthily right back out.

I had the same problem when learning Chinese. At first Chinese names don’t seem very memorable to a non-Chinese person.  Back when I was teaching in China, after much thought on how to learn the names of my 1200 students (I failed), I slyly decided to ask all my students to write their names in my notebook so I could go home and learn them. Surely then would I solve this utter…

Chinese school kids write in Chinese. Damn.

See, now this would not be a problem. I can read Chinese now and Chinese does this clever thing where the sounds of the characters don’t really change much from word to word. There are of course minor exceptions, like my good friend whose Chinese name is 柏嘉丽. Some end up calling her bai jiali rather than bo jiali, but generally those Chinese characters behave themselves.

…And that is precisely why Japanese names are a nightmare. Japanese kanji do not behave themselves. They may look nice, but Kanji have an identity crisis. Though most uses of Kanji maintain fairly consistent pronunciation, this all goes haywire when it comes to naming people. Most kanji do indeed have multiple readings, but context makes their sound clear. 新 in 新聞 is read as shin because of the compound it is part of and because it is a word with Chinese origin, but 新 in 新しい has the Japanese reading atara, made clear by the しい on the end. [1] Names however are different. Though commonly used readings of Kanji can be understood contextually, Japanese names don’t always settle for the commonly used readings. In fact, I imagine that the average Japanese family expecting a new member pulls out their dusty tome of Japanese names, and with gleeful and slightly sadistic grins announces:

“Let’s make this name so horrifically obscure that even we forget how to say it.”

How is this possible? Let me give you an example. If I put the name 陽菜 into an online Japanese name dictionary (yes, these exist with good reason), I can find out, with much relief to my prior confusion, that 陽菜 can be read as Akina. Unfortunately, 陽菜 may also be Hana. Or maybe Haruna. Sometimes, it’s Hinata. Or Hina. Or Yona. Or Youna. Or yuuna.

Heeeeelllllpppp. Calm down Japan, you need sleep. Come back to me after another 1000 years of Kanji development, and streamline this time.

Of course, any speakers of Japanese will have picked up immediately on my big mistake. I’ve been learning first names. This is problematic on two levels. Firstly, Japanese people tend to use surnames much more than we do in the English speaking world. Teachers generally call students by their surname for example. Us English assistants however seem to have a different expectation. If I ask a teacher for a student’s name, they always go by first names, and some students put their first name in English letters on their table. It is more personable and in principle I like it this way, but the fact is, Japanese surnames are much more predictable than first names. The 100 most common surnames cover the majority of the population and most are covered by a relatively small number of Kanji.

I was kindly given a name lists for each of my classes to learn names from. The example above, 陽菜, is one of my students, and I have absolutely no idea whether she is called Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna, Yuuna, or something completely different. Now I’m too embarrassed to ask. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve forgotten. Are you Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna or Yuuna?  Luckily most of the names are considerably easier to work out, but that doesn’t detract from the mammoth task of working out 400 of these puzzles.

I don’t know whether I should feel distraught or relieved that the name deciphering game is difficult for Japanese people too. I have shown the most difficult names on my name lists to Japanese people, only to be met with a blank stare and with luck some possible suggestions of how a certain name might be read. For the trickiest names, I blame the parents.

There is of course also the good old fashioned way of learning names – talking to people. Human interaction is nice, in moderation. It’s just that there are only so many times you can ask someone their name before they either hate you or decide to write it on your face in permanent ink. I don’t particularly want either of those fates, so I have retreated to my name lists, even if I do end up calling Akina Hinata by mistake. With a bit of luck there might be someone else in the class actually called Hinata, but written with even more obscure and flamboyant kanji, and the real Hinata will unwittingly save the day by thinking I was talking to her.

So, to those venturing into the brave territories of knowing the names of hundreds of Japanese school children, my advice is this. Either make use of the ingenious ‘(insert characteristic here)-lad’ and ‘(insert characteristic here)-girl’ system used by two good friends of mine (Clever girl, can you help dangerously sarcastic lad with this question?) , or give up. I’m too stubborn to take my own advice.

 

 

[1] しい is not some marker of words with Japanese origin exactly, but adjectives in the い form, as this word is, mostly are of Japanese origin.

INDUSTRIE 4.0 AND SOCIETY 5.0 – COMPARING SOCIO-POLITICAL INITIATIVES IN GERMANY AND JAPAN


First published in Politik : Perpektive, The student-run German politics journal based at Leeds University. 

At this year’s CeBIT expo, Japan presented its Society 5.0 initiative to the land of Industrie 4.0. CeBIT is the largest expo for data and communication technology in Europe, taking place annually in Hannover. As strikingly similar initiatives, it is noteworthy to compare each of them in light of Japan’s visit to CeBIT. Why are political initiatives being promoted at a German technology expo and what do these initiatives say about their country’s socio-political challenges?

The name Industrie 4.0 refers to an initiative which aims to maintain and develop Germany’s position as a manufacturer. It is seen as the next stage of economic progression which began with the process of industrialisation in the 18th century up to now – a fourth industrial revolution through the development consisting of ‘cyber-physical’ systems. Germany’s current industrial development signposts the combination of physical industry with the possibilities of advances in data technology advances such as big data and the ‘Internet of things’.

Japan’s Society 5.0 is in principle very similar. It is an initiative working towards effectively combining the possibilities of information technology with the ‘real’ world. Like Industrie 4.0, this initiative is described as the next stage of a historical progression. But where the German initiative is at the end of industrial progression, Society 5.0 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the next societal advancement. It is promoted as a “super smart society”, following on from the hunting, agrarian, industrial and information societies.

Society 5.0 focusses on society as a whole, not only industry and manufacturing. At least within government rhetoric, Society 5.0 is committed to raising the standard of life, whereas Industrie 4.0 strives only for a more effective economy. This is however not the whole story. Industrie 4.0 is one of the ten ‘future projects’ set out by the German government in 2006. These, as a whole, address industrial, environmental, and health issues, but do not extend to the breadth of Society 5.0.

The difference in focus between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 is significant, regardless of the initiatives’ shared goal of developing data technologies. Their respective names highlight the problems each initiative is attempting to resolve. Industrie 4.0 is an attempt by the German government to maintain the country’s position as a global leader in industrial manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Japanese government wants first and foremost to tackle issues such as Japan’s rapidly ageing population through Society 5.0.

These initiatives are predominantly political, not business projects. It was after all Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who was present at CeBIT to make a speech endorsing Society 5.0. It is a form of political rallying behind emerging technological trends. The different names and approaches simply represent a national interpretation of those trends. Each initiative reflects each country’s own challenges and tries to push that agenda internationally. These initiatives promote patterns that would eventually develop independently. Just as ‘Industrie 1.0’ or ‘Society 1.0’ were not political decisions, neither will their contemporary counterparts be. The politicisation of an existing progression is simply a declaration of interests and an attempt to steer a boat that already has its course.

As nationally focussed projects they will not necessarily translate well onto the international stage. There are a number of potential conflicting interests between Germany and Japan alone. For a bureaucracy-loving country such as Japan, AI maintenance might be great news, since the current human-run administration may finally be streamlined. Expanding AI possibilities do not enthuse Germans nearly as much, however. Germany is already suspicious of Google and its ever-growing digital capabilities. AI maintenance isn’t too far off becoming AI surveillance – a sensitive topic for a nation that suffered at the hands of surveillance in both the National Socialist period and the Communist period in the east.

We have to consider what triggered a need for the countries’ respective projects. In regards to Japan, it is clear from their publications on Society 5.0 how important the challenge of a rapidly increasing population is to the initiative’s development.

Germany’s aims are a little harder to pinpoint. Germany is already one of the world’s great manufacturing nations and one could easily jump to the conclusion that tinkering with Germany’s successful manufacturing sector is a mix-up of priorities. The urgency for Industrie 4.0, however,may have its roots abroad. China is an established manufacturing powerhouse. China’s business culture, that of inviting foreign investment and business into China for formative purposes, has gradually allowed it to compete aggressively with its ‘teachers’. Germany remains one of its most prominent teachers. Yet, China does not play by the usual rules, so a rule-abiding nation like Germany may have to work doubly as hard to maintain its leading manufacturing position.

Unfortunately for Japan, putting its initiative alongside Industrie 4.0 has highlighted just how uninspiring the Japanese vision of Society 5.0 could be to an international audience. It has unwittingly shown the world how a nation famed for its technology is actually very behind in the places it matters most. Included amongst Society 5.0’s suggestions for dealing with Japan’s ageing population is the digitalisation of medical records – something much of the world did a long time ago. Likewise, cashless payment technology is promoted, which – though a worthy advance for Japan – is hardly ground-breaking on a global level. And, although Japan may be a technology giant, Society 5.0 may represent a realisation that it needs to focus more on practical than fun technology.

The differences in aims and approach between the two projects highlight their political natures. Each initiative represents a political steering of a progression that will happen regardless of politics. However, the convergence of interests between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 does point towards developing international recognition that new data and communication technologies can benefit the world. Though Germany’s focus on manufacturing is unequivocally beneficial in the short term as a means of maintaining competitive advantage, improvements in data and communication technology will be better implemented through closer international cooperation. The benefits of new technology developing interconnectivity will only be fully realised through simultaneously improving interconnectivity between the national initiatives that attempt to drive the development. With this in mind, both Japan and Germany are missing the point by attempting to become world leaders in the implementation of these new technologies.

On the Trail of the Wild Onegaishimasu


If there is one word that you hear every day, every hour, maybe even every minute in Japan, it is Onegaishimasu(お願いします). You hear it when you meet someone. You hear it when someone asks you to do something. You hear it thrown on the end of a sentence when someone isn’t entirely sure what they should say next. If in doubt, Onegaishimasu will get you through the day unharmed.

There is however a big problem with this word.  It is an elephant in the room that is so large that it long ago crushed the room and has moved onto obscuring the entirety of Japan in its vague shadow. No one seems to really know what it means.

The word does of course have a meaning, but it seems to have become rather unclear with the passing of time and excessive overuse. Onegai (お願い), without the shimasu on the end roughly gets used to mean ‘a favour’

A quick Google search didn’t much help on this one. The featured answer was entertainingly specific and raised its own questions. It jumped straight to usage of Onegaishimasu in the game Go. Apparently even when Go is played properly in English, you start the game with a well meant Onegaishimasu. See, to me this seems pretty ridiculous as I can’t see the word being a particularly integral ritual of the game. In, let’s say, Mahjong, you build a wall out of your pieces because it symbolises…a very great wall.

Turning onegaishimasu into an essential part of English Go seems to me a bit like making the phrase “lovely weather today”, even when it’s absolutely pissing it down, a ritual at the start of all football games. Imagine it’s the world cup for a moment. The pitch is a quagmire, the players resemble washing up sponges before the game has even begun, yet they turn to the skies in unison and cheer “LOVELY WEATHER TODAY” and the game begins.

No. It just won’t do. And neither should onegaishimasu be considered special to Go. The two players are essentially sitting down to a table, nodding, then saying a long, drawn out, awkward ‘so…’.

So… let me look to personal experience to try and understand that mysterious onegaishimasu. It was the 7:40 am in the office and one of the teachers came over show me her English lesson plan for the day.

“hello Timothy, onegaishimasu”.

Onegaishimasu number 1.

“This is the lesson plan for today, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number 2.

*runs through lesson plan, with numerous onegaishimasu-es along the way*

“Is that lesson ok? Onegaishimasu.”

Onegaishimasu number nn

“thank you, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+1

“yoroshiku Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+2

*teacher exit right*

Apologies for using the word, as I’m sure you’re very bored of it by now, but Onegaishimasu is certainly very polite. It exists to be polite. The problem is it’s clearly more than a mere thank you.

Thinking of the word as a thank you has after all led to some rather odd English usage in Japan. Japanese textbooks teach kids nice and early to say thank you all the time. That’s no bad thing. It would just be better if they use thank you when you would use thank you. Say, for example, when you are giving thanks. Instead, the most common usage in Japan’s English textbooks is as an ending phrase for longer texts. A text may look something like this:

Hello, my name is ben. I am 13 years old. I am from America. I like tennis. Thank you!

Yes, the English is accurate (more than can be said for some English blips in the elementary school materials), but plain odd. Who is being thanked? Why? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in the dark mysteries of that pesky onegaishimasu. An Onegaishimasu would fit very comfortably there, if Ben had spoken in Japanese. Part of me wants to try using ‘thank you’ in English conversations whenever a Japanese person would use Onegaishimasu, but I fear the world would think me a madman.

So let’s move on from that. Thank you.

Seeing as the word seems to mean more than simple polite gesturing or thanksgiving, we need to go back to the drawing board. Enlisting the aid of locals should help. That definitely can’t just confuse the situation, right?

One day, a co-worker had just, naturally, said Onegaishimasu.

Afterwards she turned to me and asked me how best to say Onegaishimasu in English. It’s worth noting that she is an excellent English speaker with a native English speaking husband. My first reaction was to claim we don’t really say onegaishimasu in English, but it just wasn’t a satisfying answer, so we continued trying to get to the bottom of the conundrum. I asked her how she would explain the phrase.

“please be kind to me” was the tentative answer, but she hadn’t convinced herself. Japan is already a kind place, so there is no need to ask for more kindness every twenty seconds. That would just be greedy.

She added that when she asked her husband the same question, he philosophically answered “Onegaishimasu is… Onegaishimasu.” and left it at that. Clearly the novelty of the world had long worn out the poor man.

So I took a different angle and asked how she would explain Onegaishimasu using Japanese. Stumped. There she came to a horrible realisation. All these years and she literally hadn’t known what she was saying. In such dark times as these, there is probably only one phrase to use. Only one phrase that can console, or at the very least fill the ensuing awkward, impenetrable silence. お願いします。

Given all this, there can only be one answer to the mystery. There isn’t one. Nobody knows what on earth an Onegaishimasu is. Because of this, I will be forced to the same radical measures as many have been when trying to understand the Scottish delicacy of haggis -to hunt the hills for a wild Onegaishimasu, because it definitely doesn’t exist logically in the language.

Early observations of school life in Japan


Seeing as I came to Japan as an assistant English teacher, Japanese school makes up a big part of my life currently. As such, my schools are very much worth writing and thinking about. In short, I’ve been very impressed with how school works here, but school life in Japan is still very new to me and I am in no position to talk in terms of good or bad just yet. Instead I am restricted to commenting on what I currently like or dislike about the differences in system. I also work in a limited environment that cannot be representative of Japanese schools as a whole. Though there are some points that will be universal across the country, many of my observations will be completely unrepresentative of other schools.

Quick note on the lack of photos on this post compared to usual. The education system here is rightfully disapproving of public sharing of photos including students, so I have only used a photo where students’ faces are not clear.

General observations

Firstly, school size.  My base school is much smaller than I am used to. Where my secondary school had nearly 2000 students, I estimate my base school has fewer than 500 students – maybe even fewer than 400. I don’t know if this is standard across Japan, but other schools I have seen around Matsuyama do not look much bigger. It could simply be that Japan prefers smaller schools, but more of them.

Being in Japan, there are some things you would only get in Japan.  There are some rooms for example with tatami floors; an iconic element of Japanese buildings. One day after school at one of my elementary schools I attended tea ceremony club – they did that naturally in a tatami room in the school. Though my school doesn’t seem to be particularly into martial arts, I know some schools are. The local high school for example has a Kyuudo club, Japanese style archery.

The school day is very long here. The teachers must be in school before 8am, and most are in well before then. I leave at 4pm, but the other teachers stay for longer. I essentially follow the time schedule of the students, but plenty of students stay longer than me for sports and clubs after school.

On the mention of sport, a higher proportion of students really tries hard at sport, and enjoys it more for trying all the harder. I disliked sport at school and only really started to enjoy it after I left. The culture around sports was different. In the UK, there were the sporty kids and the not-sporty kids. I was amongst the latter and would try hard not to be involved. I was driven away from sports by the macho approach donned by the sporty kids. Students in Japan seem more supportive of each other when it comes to sports. For my middle school’s sports day, each of the teams (each year group has one class of each group colour – red, yellow, blue or green) had its own group dance that they did to egg on their teammates. Green, my team, just would not give up with the group dance. They kept going for a big proportion of the day.

One element of the schools here which makes me uncomfortable was very present during sports day: the militaristic element. It’s not just there during sports day, but marching, coordinated routines, dramatic flag-waving, unified shouting, and bowing to the national flag was all there making sports day feel occasionally like a battleground. It was a very happy battleground, but a battleground nonetheless. There is something puzzling about Japan’s occasional overt militarism. They have had no official standing army since World War 2, yet military-inspired culture is still going strong.

Non-academic and responsibility

I know of many people in the UK that lament how UK schools apparently do little or nothing to prepare students for the ‘real world’. Though I do not 100% agree with that sentiment, there is some truth to it, and without getting into the phrase ‘real world’, which bugs me like no other phrase, Japanese students do develop non-academic skills as an obligatory part of school life. Students help for example every day with serving lunch. They dress up in white aprons and face masks and make sure their classmates all have their meal. Following lunch in the elementary schools, the students pull out their toothbrushes and follow a guided tooth brushing video. I’m still confused by the existence of this video and despite it not being far off watching paint dry, I watch it every time with the utmost attention. I just can’t help myself.

I’m not entirely sure what roles they are, but a large proportion of students seem to have responsibilities between classes to report messages and collect items from the teachers’ office. Where in the UK a visit to a teacher’s office was unusual and maybe even a little intimidating, there is constant dialogue between students and teachers here.

The students are also the school cleaners. There is a cleaning period every day where the students and teachers (but mainly the students) get out brushes and cloths, and sweep the school clean. I help with cleaning the teacher’s office, which suits me fine – I just stand up from my chair and start. The students cover the whole building. Students in the classroom, students in the office, students in the corridors, students in the bathrooms; everywhere gets covered in a mere 20 minutes.

Learning focus differences

As a language teacher and enthusiast, I can’t help but feel the language teachers are too serious in the middle school. My fellow language teachers are kind people who are good with the students, but I can’t help finding their classes a bit too serious for language learning. I remember having quite wacky classes for German back in school and the wackiness was exactly what was needed for language learning. Efficient language learning should utilise all sorts of memory and recall tricks, many of which can focus heavily on the silly. Addressing that of course can lead learning in the opposite direction – all silliness and no substance – but being too serious in language learning slows down progress. You have to shrink inhibitions to develop communication. Language learning is essentially a study in communication after all. The best language learners are willing to gesture a lot (though cultural differences can really screw that up sometimes), they smile and show expressions clearly, and they just go for it. Of course that is easier said than done – I know first-hand – but it makes all the difference.

There is however also fantastic news on the language front. Japanese students get started young. There is an initiative in Japan right now to improve the country’s English standard and one of their methods to achieve this is to further encourage the learning of English in elementary school. This is great news. Although elementary students don’t push to a particularly high English level, they should be less intimidated by the idea of studying English when they’re older. In the UK most students only begin foreign languages at secondary school where, as a new subject, it is considered intimidating and overly difficult. The walls of inhibition go up and few get past an elementary stage.

Outside of the world of spoken language and into a different kind of communication, everyone seems to learn to read music in music class. That was at least in my school reserved for students that took music as an optional subject later on in school. I see that as a wonderful thing. I see it as a step towards demystifying music, making it more accessible; it takes a good chunk of the elitism out of music, as can develop occasionally in the UK. I sat in on an elementary school music lesson where every student was reading standard notation to learn how to play the Doraemon theme tune. Most students were learning on the recorder or melodica, but one student had the piano part and a few others were learning percussion parts. They had a whole band going and I was left thoroughly impressed.

Meditation before class

Something that really impresses me is the short meditation times between classes. Students sit with their eyes closed in silence for a few minutes before class begins. The teachers however do not, and personally I think if the students meditate before class, so should the teacher. The teachers work hard to be role models in so many different ways, so why miss out this opportunity? If the benefits of meditating before a class are recognised for students, is it not reasonable for teachers also to make use of those benefits?

Student/teacher dynamic

I expected a stronger sense of hierarchy in Japanese schools than actually exists. Though the final word amongst staff will always be reserved for the principal, the student/teacher dynamic is softer than I expected. It could well be that my schools, being in a small town, are more relaxed than city teachers but that assumption doesn’t really work in practice. The teachers here work not directly for the school, but for the Matsuyama board of education. They change schools, mainly within the city, every few years so most of the teachers here in Hojo will have also worked in inner city schools.

Discipline is very interesting. The stereotypical highly regulated, ordered classroom doesn’t exist. Instead, the students generally keep themselves in better order than students in the UK would. This is great on average, but when there is a troublesome student, you notice. The main teachers often aren’t so adept in controlling them as in the UK, and I personally am not allowed to be involved in disciplining students. Though I am happy not to have to discipline anybody, it can be frustrating when it would be useful and there is nothing I can do.

The question however is still there. Why do Japanese students require less explicit discipline? I think part of the answer lies in the teacher/student dynamic, as both sides appear to treat each other more as people and less as a teacher and student. When you start seeing someone as a person more than you see them in their role, you tend to stop being an ass where it’s not necessary. Similarly in UK schools, the teachers who did treat students on a more equal level tended to be rewarded with more abiding students. I also wonder if the short meditations in between classes help. I can’t help but notice that often one or two of the students who keep an eye on the other students to check they have their eyes closed and therefore are not meditating themselves are amongst the cheekiest in the class. I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-academic responsibilities like school-cleaning and food-serving contributes to the students’ self-discipline, but the thought is purely speculative.

What next?

There is of course much still to learn about Japanese schools. Here are a few things I want to explore further. I’m mystified by the ‘moral education’ text book I’ve seen in the office. The very concept of teaching morals out of a standardised textbook puzzles me, and I assume the class has its roots in the national learning movement of the 19th century, but I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest mystery to, as cynical as it may sound, is this. How come so many Japanese students genuinely really like school? What’s the secret?

Leading on from that mystery, what can other countries learn from Japan’s school system?

There is still much more to learn, and for that I’m thankful.

Setting up life in Japan


It’s been a month now since I moved yet again to a new place, this time settling in Japan. I had wanted to see Japan for a long time. Even the first time I moved away from the UK to China with Project Trust, I had originally hoped to go to Japan instead, and it had been years before then that I had dreamed of going there. Now, I’m here.

First Impressions

I came here as part of the JET programme, a programme run by the Japanese government to help promote cultural exchange in Japan. The majority of Jets, including myself, become English language teaching assistants. So, for the first time in over four years, I’m back to teaching English.

I live and work in Hojo. It’s a small town just outside of Matsuyama city, the largest city on the island of Shikoku. It’s not the most known city in Japan, so for reference it is south of and across the sea from Hiroshima.

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Hojo is a quiet place. Once it’s own town, it has been swallowed up by Matsuyama. I imagine this is due to Matsuyama getting larger, whilst Hojo (and simply all of Japan’s rural areas) steadily depletes of people. When I first arrived it struck me as a ghost town. I realise now that it’s not quite a ghost town, but it can be eerily empty sometimes. Japan has a rapidly ageing population and it shows much more clearly in smaller towns. Most young people move to the cities, leaving the age demographic in the countryside heavily skewed. That said, there are clearly enough young families in Hojo to fill up the schools. There are two junior high schools, a senior high school and numerous elementary schools, and where there are schools there are young families. Where they all these young families are however, remains a bit of a mystery to me.

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It is a nonetheless a beautiful near-ghost town. On one side of Hojo is a bright blue sea dotted with sub-tropical islands. The closest of these islands is called ‘Deer Island’, as it is…well…inhabited by very tame, very friendly deer…as well as plenty of impressively large insects and dangerous plants, but that’s Japan. On the other side of town, rice paddies run up to the edge of lush green mountains. Storks stand in the paddies as giant dragonflies flit across them. It is on all accounts a very idyllic place; it is probably the most beautiful place I have ever lived.

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My local city is no metropolis either, but it’s a pleasant place. It is one of the few lucky towns in Japan to actually have a real castle. Most of Japan’s castles of old are really replicas that were built after the originals were burnt down by A. warring clans, B. war between Samurai and the government, or C. bombs in the second world war. Matsuyama castle has, despite all the burning of castles round the land, been standing since 1611.

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It is also famous for Dogo onsen, apparently one of the oldest hot spring resorts in the country, and the inspiration for the onsen in the Studio ghibli film ‘spirited away’ (a film that, coming from someone that doesn’t really enjoy watching films) should be obligatory viewing…as are all studio ghibli films.

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We also have the best city mascot. Japan being Japan, in constant need of being adorable at every corner, it has many a cartoon mascot. Matsuyama’s flagbearer is Mikyan, half dog, half Tangerine (mikan in Japanese, hence the doggo’s name). Mikyan also has an evil friend, dark mikyan.

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I should be forgiven for thinking dark Mikyan was a lime (such an evil fruit, you know), but apparently the evil version is a rotten mikan.

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I am yet to buy any Mikyan-related goods, but I will no doubt have 60 Mikyan soft toys, Mikyan curtains and carpets, Mikyan pajamas and formal suit by the end of my time here.

The nicest thing about coming to Japan as part of the JET programme is that you have a community as soon as you get there. Despite Matsuyama being a small city, there are around 30 JET ALTs (Assistant language teachers) in town. There are three of us in Hojo. So, in those tricky first few weeks where you are just trying to settle in and meet people, us JET folk get a head start. It helps of course that they’re a really good bunch of people in Matsuyama, a group who will no doubt get mentioned a fair few times in future blogs. It is true that despite having been here a month now, I feel I haven’t got to know the other ALTs well enough yet (partly down I imagine to my ineptness at dealing with small-talk…) but I’m more than happy in knowing that there is such a good group of people just half an hour away on the train from Hojo. It’s going to be a highlight of my time in Japan getting to know these fabulous folk.

Seeing as I’ve been here a month, I should perhaps write about the events of the month. After all, there were a few festivals in town, as well as a few natural disasters nearby, but for today I’d rather talk about Where i’m personally at. Writing about events and the like will have to wait for another time.

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Back in school I set myself a list of goals, a list which I deemed not achievable. Included on that list was to become a hyperpolyglot (able to speak 6 or more languages), be able to consider myself a writer, get a first class degree at university,  travel the world, and explicitly live in Japan and Germany.

Well, i did all that. Plus more. That is in itself amazing and I have to stop sometimes and think – did I really do all that?? how did that happen? But that has created its own challenges. What happens when you achieve what you really didn’t think possible? What do you do when all your goals are already surpassed?

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I have formed new goals since my school days, but the realisation that a list I deemed impossible to complete was actually very much possible. That evokes my confusing feelings. Positive, but confusing. I don’t want to share all of my new ‘unachievable’ goals here, but they are big ideas. Maybe I will surprise myself again after a few more years of work.

Of course in the short term I have my goals for Japan. This little piece of writing represents the beginning of one of those goals. I am putting pen to paper (and then often transferring it over to the digital world) once more. I hope that I can be more honest and more meaningful in what I write from now on. Writing has a capacity to be extremely powerful, for both the reader and the writer, but holding back restricts that. In the past, I have held back. Sometimes that was to avoid panic from my readers. Sometimes it was to avoid terrifying myself. yet in the long term that does no favours to anyone, so lets start with some honest writing right here.

Honest thoughts at the beginning of my life in Japan

I could easily record only the amazing, the positive, the envy-evoking parts of life in a new land. I have done that in the past. Now, if i look back at what i wrote about living in China, I can see right away that something is missing; that my recollections are insincere. The honest feelings are gone now, and with it a true recollection of events.

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So what am I really thinking, past the rose-tinted glasses?

This is my 6th consecutive year of not staying one place for longer than a year, and it’s having its effect:

Year 1. Kuitun, West China. Year 2. Start of degree, Leeds, UK. Year 3. Beijing. year 4. Part back in Leeds, part in Leipzig, Germany. year 5. back in Leeds. year 6. Japan.

I feel detached. Though it is true I was disowning the UK to a certain extent even before the first time I left it, but it truly does not feel like a home anymore. I feel most at home with a backpack on, boarding a train to somewhere I’ve never been. I think when I left the UK, I wasn’t just looking for experience and adventure, but I was also running. I still haven’t worked out what I was running from, but that running away has led me all the way here to Japan. I’m still running. Perhaps my situation is like Sparrowhawk, in wizard of Earthsea, running from the parts of himself he doesn’t want to face. If so, I don’t know what those parts are. It certainly doesn’t stop me from running.

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I would have thought that after 5 years of moving so regularly that it would get easier. Instead it has been the opposite. Moving to Kuitun was strikingly easy. Not speaking the language, moving to the Gobi desert at the age of 19, I settled in in less than a week. Now with more experience living abroad than many will ever have, I found Japan very hard to settle into. By western standards, Japan is cleaner, more polite and freer than China (that last point is worth discussing heavily in the future), and yet China was so much more comfortable to me. Maybe 19 year old enthusiasm softens cultural change better than holding a degree training students in the art of cynicism. That is at least relatively cynical in comparison to 19 year old enthusiasm. Technically if your academic work is cynical, it probably isn’t properly academic, in the same way it should not optimistic.

That said, I do still love the adventure of this unpredictable lifestyle. It’s just getting harder and harder. When I look to see what old friends are doing, and I see there (apparent) stability, I don’t understand it. So many people that seem content with gradual change. Content with the same job, the same circle of friends, the same scenery. I’ve only been here for a month and I’m already busy considering what happens next. That perhaps sounds condescending of those who have settled. Really it is the opposite. It is a mix of something similar to envy, and an inability to understand that way of being. I have the option to stay here in Matsuyama for up to five years, yet the idea of being somewhere for longer than a year seems so strange and distant to me now. As much as I have loved the places I’ve lived, the only place I was not ready to leave was Germany (which for anybody who is in doubt, is the finest place in the whole world).

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I can almost here the unrestrained yells of ‘privilege!’, ‘ ohh, your life is so hard!’ wailing across the hills at this point, but there is a tendency to look at any situation in absolute terms. This is an extreme irony, as nothing, nothing, (spot the flaw here) is absolute.

I am kicking myself for writing that, but the point is staying, as it just highlights the prior sentence.

For every wonderful experience, there is a dark side, or at least an opposite, to it. For every opportunity I am privileged to experience, there will always be some kind of repercussion. There is an analogy from one of the existentialist thinkers (Kierkegaard possibly?) of two brothers that highlights this problem better than I would be able to personally. It’s work looking up, but in short, one brother leaves his home town for adventure, whilst one stays. One day, they meet again, both in envy of each other. The brother who went has stories and adventure under his belt. The brother who stayed has a family, a community and stability. Both want what the other has.

So after 5 years of moving at least once a year, I sympathise with the brother who went. Adventure is no absolute wonder, as valuable as it is.

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And this is how I begin my time in Japan. I have completed one line of impossible goals and I begin a new collection of impossible goals. I am so happy to be in a childhood dream, yet I’m also at a point of limbo. I’m still running. At some point I want to know what I’m running from, but I think I’m too afraid to turn around.

Watching the rain fall over Matsuyama castle as I write this is somehow grounding. Five years on from when I started running, I don’t know where I’m going. Yet the road truly is longer than the goal, and the road is as beautiful as it is winding.

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