Japan: a swan song

My cases have been sent off to the airport, my passport is in my carry-on and I have just spent the last several hours scrubbing my apartment within an inch of its life – PHEW. While I wait for a company bod to come and pick over the place with a tooth comb, I thought I’d write up some parting thoughts before my departure tomorrow morning.

Criminally cliched to say though I know it is, time truly has flown these past few months. I cast my mind back to my arrival in Japan, glimpsing Fuji-san away in the distance on my first commute to work, the shoal-like crowds of Shinjuku on that first dizzying day in Tokyo, discovering sake flavoured Kit Kats and green tea ice cream… it all could have happened no more than a week ago. The past week has been peppered with many such rememberings, and as I gather my belongings together for the long flight ahead, so too are my memories of my final week being collected in this final report…


Nabe = NOM

Student farewells. After a brief stint in hospital with norovirus over the weekend (joyous), both my stomach and I were relieved to be more or less back to normal by Tuesday, in time to spend a last couple of days with my fabulous flock. I set them to playing an adaptation of the Million Pound Drop using Christmas trivia (they can ALL now recite me a much more accurate version of the Nativity, although one or two still feel Rudolph should make an appearance somewhere between the shepherds and the three wise men). I rounded off the day in a cracking little sashimi joint in Soka with some of the ladies from work, reminiscing about the term’s activities, puzzling over the opacity of kanji and hearing their take on the Japanese refusal to talk politics in public. Fascinating stuff.


The ladies

Then on Wednesday I decked out the classroom with some particularly high-quality pieces from the hundred yen store, bought enough sugary crap to keep everyone wired until Christmas 2026 and spent a wonderful day having students drop in for Christmas games, chit-chat and good-bye-for-nows. I know I have a job to come back to, but I may be sent to a different university next semester (although the students have promised to badger the management into sending me back – a touching vote of confidence to be sure!) Listening to their gentle chatter made me immensely proud of them all – particularly of those for whom I know speaking is an incredibly daunting prospect. They have pushed themselves right out of their comfort zones, made some excellent progress, and often both delighted and baffled me in the process; adapting my teaching to an eastern mindset has been simultaneously a steep learning curve and an utter privilege.


Lovely Haruka, what a gem


No clowns. I am currently reading an excellent book called Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, a long-time admirer and collector of all things Japanese. In a chapter I have just finished, Kerr proclaims that “being average and boring here is the very essence of society”, observing that the education system is rigged to produce a high overall average rather than polarised excellence/drop-out levels. I reflected on this with my own classes in mind. I have on occasion become inwardly frustrated by my students’ unwillingness to be enthusiastic about creative tasks, to speak out in class, to take a stance, to allow themselves to shine (although they are all more than capable of all of these things, no doubt about that). This apparent reluctance to court the limelight and eagerness to tow the line initially struck me as shockingly unambitious for such able people. But although I still believe they have much to gain from allowing themselves to express a little more individuality, I have also come to realise how western my own mindset is when it comes to this issue,



coming as I do from a system that prizes star performances and exceptionalism, a pressure to which I know I have fallen victim in the past… Round here, maintaining group harmony reigns supreme.  I am generalising, of course; I would hate for you to be imagining some dreary monochrome classroom of identical students sitting in rows copying and chanting in perfect unison! Not remotely accurate. But it is true that there are no starlets in my classroom, no class clowns. And for me at least, that has been a breath of fresh air. Indeed, surely what we need now, in so many aspects of our societies, are collaborations and collective efforts, rather than charismatic big-talking individuals whose promises miraculously never seem to materialise? I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of done with superstars. Good work Easterners – I think you’re onto something.

A bow is worth a thousand hugs. Until Wednesday,  I had experienced a hug with a Japanese person only twice. The first was what Alaina and I have come to refer to as the Awkward Back Pat, in which the recipient was clearly caught off-guard and I, still un-attuned to the Japanese level of appropriate personal space, was definitely over-zealous in my offering of affection (poor thing didn’t half look shell-shocked). The second was from Miho the yoga instructor, whose profession probably steers her in a more tactile direction than most of her compatriots I would imagine. On Wednesday, however, I clocked up no fewer than THREE hugs from students (after my permission was hesitantly sought, naturally). Not bad going eh.


A stand-out moment from the day, however, was when one of the older ladies came rushing up to me at the end of our session, at a pace that suggested a heart-felt hug was her next move. But she stopped quite suddenly a pace or two in front of me, and began instead to lower her head in a series of profuse, measured bows, which I of course returned in kind. Bowing has become second nature now, but there was something about the emotion conveyed by this student’s way of executing the gesture that touched me far more deeply than any passing squeeze would have done. In a bow there is respect of course, maybe gratitude too. But in this kind of bow there was also a kind of surrender, a revealing of the self… and therefore there was trust, complicity, connection… and acceptance. Came through to me loud and clear, and made me peculiarly weepy all of a sudden. To feel that I had been accepted, even to a slight degree, in what can easily feel like such an impenetrable country, was really quite overwhelming.

I will round off by simply saying that being in Japan has enriched me in ways I could not have predicted; its stunning cultural offerings and natural phenomena have provided the perfect backdrop against which to re-discover old friendships (Alaina: you ROCKSTAR. I miss you already you fantastic human) and ignite many new ones across different nationalities, languages and perspectives. I have also developed my pedagogical ideas, which have often taken a good beating, but which have been reconstructed more robust and also more fluid than ever before.

I shall leave you with some photos that didn’t make it into previous posts, along with a long series of heartfelt virtual bows for reading about my Japanese exploits. I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates as much as I’ve enjoyed putting them together (next one scheduled for March!). Have a splendid Christmas everyone, and may 2017 bring you health, energy, luck, love, knowledge, light, prosperity, laughter, happiness and all manner of splendid shizzle.

Over and out for now!

Katrina x x x x x



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