Katorina-sensei and the cult of yuumei

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Hanami picnics in Yoyogi

Happy Sunday from a rainy/muggy Tokyo one and all! The cherry blossoms are at their peak, dressing the trees like bridesmaids and showering the streets like confetti: Tokyo is thus transformed into what could be a truly sensational city-wide wedding venue. Bloomin’ marvellous! (been itching to drop in that horribly predictable pun, had to be done). The good weather has turned on its heel and buggered off elsewhere today unfortunately, but the preceding days provided me with enough photo ops to ensure that this post is suitably sakura-filled 😉

Linguistic leaps. I’m not sure what I’ve been adding to my morning miso (and given the fact that I can decipher about 5% of the ingredients on the packaging, it really is anyone’s guess), but I have gone on something of a language learning rampage this week. The French renaissance is going swimmingly, with daily doses of RFI, blow-by-blow updates on the presidential debate and online correspondence with a host of fabulous francophones. Despite the relatively tiny amount of time I have spent actively speaking French, the language seems to gently tap me on the shoulder like an old, sadly neglected acquaintance, and I am thrilled to be building the relationship once more 🙂

Progress is certainly slower with the Japanese, but my future mastery is looking more and more hopeful thanks to some invaluable new input. I befriended Yumiko-san, one of the admin ladies at work, under whose patient tutelage I am forging ahead, one clumsy construction at a time. Homework from her this weekend is to master discussing the weather, and she assures me she will prepare “very difficult test for Katorina-sensei” on Tuesday. Best get studying!

A glorious reunion with Yasuko and Kako followed on Thursday, bringing with it the usual hilarious Spanish/Japanese/English code-switching madness, and the linguistic bonanza was capped off last night with a visit to an English/Japanese conversation cafe down in Chiyoda. The Japanese-Canadian host provided mugs of discounted drinks and a charming space abuzz with chatter and collaboration. In this sublime setting I struck up several halting, at times excruciatingly inept conversations with a series of miraculously encouraging Japanese speakers, in exchange for correction of their far superior English. The highlight was undoubtedly meeting Mayu, a Tokyo University staff member whose kind words and clear, gentle corrections meant more to me than I’m sure she realises.

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English Only Cafe, Chiyoda-Ku

Setsumeikai and the cult of yuumei. Besides ambling about enjoying the local flora and lashing together the linguistic neurons, my week has consisted of shuttling around Tokyo giving taster lessons, or setsumeikai, to lecture theatres of prospective students. So far so good I think! The groups vary greatly in size, level and enthusiasm, so flexibility is the order of the day… and my general strategy of less teaching, more acting, seems to be paying off. This leads me to a by no means new observation, but one which I would like to pick apart briefly…

I had just emerged from a particularly well-attended setsumeikai (500 odd students), when I caught sight of a gaggle of girls, barely beyond adolescence in stature, voice-pitch and style of dress. On noticing me, said group dissolved into fits of giggles, almost stage-whispering “Oh my god it’s HER!” to one another in bashful conspiracy. I waved and did a lot of beaming: cue a fresh wave of hysteria.  The only moment in my life when I will have anything resembling empathy for Justin Bieber.

“I’m famous!” I joked to Yumiko-san – having just learnt the word for ‘famous’ (yuumei), I was chuffed to have identified a chance to use it. My new mentor met this with a sharp intake of breath, followed by a girlish giggle not dissimilar to the one emitted by aforementioned post-adolescents. “Katorina-san, you must not say this – Japanese person would never say this about himself!”

I got to thinking (à la Carrie Bradshaw) about the Japanese relationship with fame: how is it that a culture can raise up others to a level of deification largely unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and yet also set such store by humility and self-deprecation? I’m thinking of the hoards of adoring J-Pop/anime/Hello Kitty fans, or the reception Daniel Radcliffe and other bewildered stars received here in Japan, their arrivals throwing some crowd members into a state of almost medically dangerous fervour. And yet, to be the subject of such idolatry, to imagine yourself better than others must be near the top of the nation’s cultural no-nos list; recognising yourself as famous is no less unacceptable than referring to yourself using the honourific title san. For the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the over-quoted Japanese saying goes.

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Harajuku girls

Perhaps idolisation of others is acceptable, but elevation of the self is where the line is drawn. And yet, one need not venture far into Tokyo before encountering some of the most flamboyant sartorial creations I think I have ever feasted my eyes upon -technicolour get-ups, fake peacock-feather lashes and glam-rock sequined stack heels positively abound. Although I am arguably not describing mainstream tastes, self-expression seems to be on the up… or is this outlandishness simply the new conformity? Once you’ve seen one neon wig, you’ve seen them all I suppose.

Perhaps, as Peter Carey notes in my current read Wrong About Japan, these expressions of ‘individuality’ have much to do with simple freedom of expression:

“You think Japanese are great conformists. Remember, though, that this was a country which once had strict laws about what you wore, where you lived. God help you if you acted like a samurai when you weren’t. Can you imagine what it feels like to wear what you damn well please? You want to be a robot pilot, that’s your choice.”

If individuality is simply about being free, then getting attention from others when doing so must be decidedly secondary, even irrelevant. Maybe that’s the difference between Western fame monsters and Eastern dresser-uppers: the former’s goal pivots on external validation, whereas for the latter the key is simply internal emancipation… So when a group of blushing teenagers appear to elevate me into the stratosphere after a setsumeikai – a show of sorts for which I do rely on a form of yuumei – perhaps the subtext is not “Wow you are so great, I want to emulate that”, but rather “Wow, you are being what you want to be – good for you!” I wonder, though, whether the external validation part just lies further down the road than I have so far explored…

The latter part of this post is no doubt lacking in intellectual rigour, but am glad to have got some of my ponderings down in any case. Thoughts/comments/constructive input more than welcome!

Coming up this week:

  • More lecture halls of (hopefully less hysterical) freshmen
  • Results of Yumiko-san’s Very Difficult Weather Test (wish me luck!)
  • Final sakura viewings
  • Bilingual yoga in Shibuya!

Enjoy your weekends and coming weeks mes chers. More Japanese musings making their way to you very soon. Until then, I’ll leave you with a few extra shots from the week – enjoy!

Trina x x x x x

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