Several years ago, I was a once-a-week visiting English teacher at a junior high school. The classes would all be between nine and two, and I was required to stay at the school during those hours. This meant three hours of teaching, and two hours of sitting in the staff room. The classes were fine; I told the Japanese teacher of English my lesson plan, she mentioned any problems she foresaw and I did my best to get the students talking. The kids were, on the whole, well-behaved and co-operative. There were a few thirteen-year-olds with grey hairs appearing and one girl with a full moustache, but generally they were quite pleasant.
Nevertheless I came to really dislike the visits to the junior high school because of the idle time spent in the staff room. Even during the hour designated as lunch I had to be there. On my first day, I had decided to go for a walk to the nearest convenience store, about a two-minute stroll away. I’d got about half way when a car screeched to a stop next to me and I was ushered in by the Japanese teacher of English who told me she was worried I would get lost. There were no turnings between the school and the convenience store. So I would sit in the staff room bored to tears. I’d already planned my lessons beforehand and had nothing to do.
I used to just look around at the other staff and what I learned was that social awkwardness is very possibly a prerequisite to becoming a junior high school teacher in Japan. One teacher would regularly clip his fingernails in the staff room, one would brush her teeth furiously without using any toothpaste, and at least half of the others would be talking to themselves. Hitorigoto is the word for it in Japanese and it would drive me nuts. Later, it seemed that the whole country was at it. I began to notice post-office workers mumbling away, old women having discussions with themselves in supermarkets and I always seemed to find myself standing in front of a compulsive hitorigotoer at the cash machine. Nowhere, though, did I witness it more than in that staff room. Sometimes it seemed as though the whole bloody lot of the teachers in the staff room spent all their waking moments mumbling and muttering to themselves. It was quite unnerving. I couldn’t always understand what they were saying, but the guy sitting next to me was a constant hitorigotoer and from what I could gather his verbosity was a simple stream of consciousness: ‘Ah, it’s hot today. What shall I do now? Where’s my pen? It’s not on my desk? Where could it be? Ah, what shall I do? I’ll use another pen! Ah, here it is! It was in the drawer! Ah, it’s hot!..’ all morning long.
That fellow was also a proud proponent of using the word yosh! This is a word that a lot of Japanese people use to signify that they are, or have been, expending energy. Lifting a box? Yosh! Finished stacking a ridiculous number of books on your desk for no apparent reason? Yosh! Sitting down after a bit of a strenuous class? Yosh! But this guy took it to extremes. He would Yosh! every time he stood up or sat down, every time he made the slightest of decisions, and even on occasion at the herculean effort of putting a pen in his pocket. I couldn’t stand just being there once a week. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to work there every day. They were insane.
Perhaps none was more wacko than the science teacher who, when not talking to himself, would habitually try to engage me in conversation in painfully broken English. He would usually begin with, ‘To tell the truth’ or ‘By the way’, so that his opening gambit might be, ‘To tell the truth I am a hangover!’ or ‘By the way, today is very fine!’ He was pleasant enough, though, and just trying to be friendly. He always asked how I was and when I returned the question would come out with some wonderful replies, ranging from the perfectly normal, ‘I’m fine’ to the Michael Jacksonesque, ‘I’m bad’ to the quite startling, ‘I’m funky’ which rather took me aback, coming as it did from a thin geeky chap with greasy hair and glasses on only our second conversational exchange. On my last day at that school he came to say goodbye to me. He said, ‘By the way, I am sad this is your last day. You are my best friend!’
Steady on there big fellow!