Monday, March 7, 2011

A Japanese Carol

It is relatively easy to forget that you are living in Japan. Having spent the evening speaking English to Roland over some Mc Donald’s and British sitcoms and the morning drinking five roses tea and getting a text message from Ducky, highlighting her opinion on the latest ridiculous development in a certain celebrity’s life, I have more often than not stumbled through my fist `Ohayo Gozaimasu*` of the day as I greeted the office lady while my mind somersaulted back into Japanese.

Oh but there are moments where Japan hands you a pair of chopsticks, sits you down on your ankles, motions to a bowl of rice in front of you and tells you to start eating. When tradition does enter stage left, it goes big or it goes home.

As if taking a page or two from a Dickens` classic, tradition enlisted the help of two Japanese ghosts to remind me this past week, that there is still more to this country than Starbucks and Mc D`s.

Don`t get me wrong, I still love `Staba` as the kids call it.
The first was dressed in red and white battle armor, skillfully bordered with gold leaf. While adorned as a warrior he seemed at absolute peace, he was beauty and balance and his name was Hachiman. On a barely born Spring Sunday, he invited Roland and I to come see his home at Usa jinju, an offer made hard to refuse by his hand resting on the hilt of his blade. Usa Shinto Shrine is one of the most important places of worship for those who follow the Shinto religion. It is dedicated to Hachiman, the god of warriors, archers and martial artists but everything about it quiets your soul and inspires you to fight about as much as a warm bubble bath does.

Even at the entrance to the temple complex, small packets of pellets, clipped onto a string, served to remind me of the severe contradiction between Japan and my home country. It is based on the honor system and you are expected to place 100 yen into the box after taking some food to feed the already enormous Koi swimming under the ornately carved wooden bridge. In South Africa the instructions may as well have read: please take some free food when you see nobody is watching.

I would love to say that the two of us serenely drifted through the colossal temple grounds but the truth is that my foot (sensing immanent exercise) decided to develop a dull ache, causing me to limp like a grumpy bear who just escaped from a trap past the soothing waterfalls and century’s old red temples.

It was surprisingly moving watching Japanese families clap their hands together three times and pray in unison at the base of each temple and unsurprisingly funny watching little Japanese children disobey explicit orders to place a few coins in the provided box, instead opting to throw it a great distance and watching it ricochet from beams, usually landing under an ornament, probably making some poor shrine maiden feel decidedly less Zen that afternoon while finding coins everywhere but the box.

I purchased my first Daruma doll at the temple, accompanied by some broken English instructions from the kind salesman. When you start a goal (in my case to learn a hundred kanji characters), you paint in one of the dolls blank eyes. He then looks at you and motivates you for however long it takes for you to complete your goal and give him back his 20/20 vision by painting in the other eye.

As we strolled (or limped) past moss covered stone lanterns, standing near perfectly preserved red and gold, wooden structures we felt more relaxed than we had felt in a long time. As the god of war, Hachiman had failed miserably to boil our blood or inspire us to raise an army and conquer the nearest 7/11 but it will be a good long while before we tell him this to his face.

The second ghost was conflicted; she was proud and confident yet shy and filled with shame. She was a bonsai tree placed in front of a crisp white flag telling the story of the rising sun and her name is `Kimi ga yo`**. This was the scene of my school`s graduation. My principal, a usually jolly man looked like a president delivering a national address with the Japanese flag, for the first time this year hanging impressively behind him. The audience of teachers wearing suits, mothers wearing kimono and third year students facing the freedoms and responsibilities waiting just outside the school gates, all sat in silence, not once applauding for a full hour and twenty minutes. You have no idea how powerfully the Japanese anthem rings out after nothing but smoothly executed speeches broken only by absolute silence.


This was the first time I had heard `Kimi ga yo` being sung at my school or seen the flag raised in assembly and the reason is as complex as a bowl of rice is simple.

While my students and teachers are fiercely proud of being Japanese, the flag and anthem are linked to infamous invasions into neighboring countries, outdated imperial ideologies and a crushing defeat at the end of world war two. For every Japanese person who is reminded of Japans status as a world power despite its size and lack of many natural resources by the flag, there is another who sees only the atrocities committed in China or the first two atomic bombs decimating Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The spell cast by all this stiff tradition was drawing me in rather nicely, until I looked over at my second year boys, sitting in the very last row, all fast asleep on each other’s shoulders. I was sad to see some of my third years walk past the line of teachers with tears in their eyes but at the same time I always knew they were never really mine. They belonged to my predecessor who had been teaching them since their first year of high school and would always be their real ALT. I was just thinking of this slightly sad reality when I heard one of my 1st years say `oh, Freda Sensei, look` while he proudly showed me the playing cards (he was not meant to have at school) with the anime character on that we both like.

I fear the year that my king Bobs and my loud karaoke girls make their way down the aisle leading to their futures. It will most definitely be a double edged samurai sword when `my` students finally say goodbye.

* Good morning
** The Japanese national anthem

1 comment:

  1. Such fine writing Freda! I saw the film Julie and Julia and with my limited know how of how blogs are created, I am a little more knowledgable now. I still am learning to embrass reading on the internet instead of holding a book in my hands. Maybe one day i can encourage you to have this boeremeisie in Japan printed in bookform and I will be the first one to buy it. lots of love, aunty Julie