The other day I ended up on one of those trains you always see on telly programmes about Japan. You know the ones; the ones where passengers are crammed in so tightly that they are forced to breathe each other’s hair. It wasn’t pleasant. I was forced to rub crotches with an oily-faced businessman who found himself resting his head upon my shoulder. We were, in effect, sharing an armless hug. I was relieved when he managed to somehow negotiate his way off the train, but then became alarmed as his place was taken by a schoolgirl in uniform. Strange as it may seem, having a schoolgirl next to you on a crowded train is worse than having a salaryman with a penchant for kimuchi-nattou breakfasts. For when you are forced against your will to press upon a schoolgirl in a train, you find yourself desperately hoping that all other passengers can see your hands way up there on the hand straps, fingers wiggling to attract attention. ‘I am not a groper,’ you hope they convey. ‘All frottage is entirely unwanted and unintentional.’ Nevertheless, I found myself terrified that someone else, someone nearby, might be a groper and the girl might mistake his hand for mine. She looked scared enough as it was, but more so when she caught my eye and I attempted a reassuring smile. ‘Shit, I’ve creeped her out,’ I thought. But there was nothing I could do. You can’t lean into someone on a crowded train and whisper, ‘It’s okay, I’m definitely not a molester.’ Not without arousing deep suspicion that you almost certainly are. So we struggled along, she bracing herself for the worst, I doing elaborate finger dances and squirming with every awkward carriage shunt. My stop arrived and I pushed my way off the train. I was red-faced and sweating and the picture of innocent guilt. I wished there had been a ladies-only carriage. They are doubly good, I realized. Primarily, of course, they protect the women from unwanted hands. But as a bonus they take away the fear that can accompany a regular man just trying to get from A to B.
Well, yesterday, I spent my time reading Baye Mcneil’s second book Loco In Yokohama, and what a pleasant day it was! This book, I had heard, was about teaching in Japan and, as someone who has spent the best part of two decades doing just that, I was looking forward to seeing how our experiences compared. The characters and situations are familiar to anybody who has spent time working in Japanese schools – there are English teachers who can’t speak English, staff with breath to make a badger wince, and overreactions to the slightest of misfortunes as happened to Loco when he foolishly mentioned that he had misplaced a memory stick – but the book isn’t just about teaching in Japan. No, for me it is much more a book about human relationships and it is an excellent and absorbing one at that. It is the interplay between the individuals that draws you in – the back-stabbing between the staff, the handling of unruly or unhinged students, the everyday frustrations of dealing with other human beings, and the friendship the author finds with one or two special individuals.
That last part is vital. You see, on occasion I have read some of Loco’s blog pieces and wondered why on earth he has stayed in Japan so long. He has not been shy about voicing his misgivings about the country, the people who won’t sit next to him on trains, the looks of fear in those nearby, the assumptions, and the blindness or deafness to what should be readily apparent. But what you also get from this book is the flip-side. You get the warmth he feels for some people, the kindness that has brought him to the brink of tears, and the answer, in part at least, to why he is still here.
This is not a quirky book with ‘hilarious’ tales about going to class in toilet slippers or having to eat fish sperm for lunch. Rather it is a book that reveals to us the highs and lows, the frustrations and pleasures, the joy and sadness that come from interacting with other people. Anybody who has lived and taught in Japan will recognise many of the characters and relate to the situations. Anyone who has lived at all will relate to the emotions. Definitely worth setting aside some time for. You can get it here
Well, it’s getting to that time of year when I must decorate my house with pumpkins and witches and pretend to be excited that Halloween is coming. It’s what is expected of English schools in Japan and so I toe the line and join in. I don a costume of minimal effort and I hold small parties with my kids’ classes. They enjoy it and although I know doing it for the kids is admirable and right, I’m still not much of a Halloween fan
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m as fond as any chap of stumbling into a bar in late October to find it populated with some carry-on nurses or scantily clad policewomen threatening to take down my particulars but, all the same, I’d rather not spend a few hours dressed as a pirate in the company only of children and have to pretend I am teaching them culture. For one thing, when I was growing up in Britain we didn’t say ‘trick-or-treat’ and we didn’t even have pumpkins. We carved Jack O’Lanterns from turnips and when we visited houses dressed as ghouls and goblins we typically told a joke, sang a song or did a magic trick in return for our sweets. ‘Guising,’ we called it. Nary a ‘Trick or Treat!’ was heard, although I suppose the end result was the same – people in houses gave you sweets to piss off.
Things have changed. My nephews and nieces say ‘trick-or-treat’ and they carve proper pumpkins. That’s what the kids seem to do these days. But I am not a kid. I am a middle-aged bald man. When I dress up at Halloween and play various games with children I feel like I am Brian Can’t or Jeffrey from Rainbow, but without the television salary. I don’t feel I am introducing foreign culture but still, when each party ends, with a swashbuckling wave of my pirate’s sword I see the students head happily home. Then I sit down and weep with shame at what my life has become. Okay, I don’t really, but I am ever so glad that I have my own school, for at least I don’t have a boss who is going to plaster my Pied Piperesque picture all over a website with captions in colorful comic sans font which may as well say, ‘Look! Our teacher’s an arse!’ As a small consolation, I can spare myself that.
I daren’t look at students’ parents’ facebook pages.
One thing that pleased me immensely about Prime Minister Abe’s Olympic pitch was his reassurance that Fukushima is under control. You see, there was I foolishly thinking that underestimating the amount of radiation leakage by a factor of 18 might suggest that things were not quite as fully under control as one would hope, but I was wrong. The Prime Minister himself said so. He said, in English, that the situation is ‘under control.’ So, that’s a relief.
Still, though, I worried. After all, my old uncle’s incontinence is under control in that he wears a diaper but, given a choice, I wouldn’t opt to sleep on a bottom bunk with him on the top for fear that he might piss all over me. It’s surely at least a slight risk. So, I thought, well maybe the P.M. just means Fukushima is under control for now, right at this moment. But no! Rejoice! For good old Mr Abe has assured us that there have been no problems in Tokyo and there never will be! Never! Hurrah! Because in a land as shaky as Japan you tend to worry. I mean what if another big quake hits the plant with its dodgy container tanks and leaking water and atmosphere too poisonous to consider living anywhere in its vicinity for, oh, well let’s just say a long long time? But it can’t, because Mr Abe has told the world that Tokyo will never be affected. I know, I know, TEPCO said radioactive water wasn’t leaking when it was. But that was TEPCO. This is the Prime Minister. The man in charge! Everything is fine and dandy.
Mr Abe was leaking quite a lot himself a while back. He had to give up his first term as Prime Minister because of chronic diarrhea. But he got that sorted and is back at the helm and ensuring we can all rest easily. I’m glad his health has recovered and Japan has returned to such a safe pair of hands. His bowels are under control and he no longer needs to empty himself of shit all the time. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking he is full of it. Phew!