Why Japan?

Recently, the question “Why did you come to Japan,” “Why do you like Japan,” and “What will you do next,” has come up several times for me, first in the JET Japanese language course through a free-writing question, and questions from teachers when they’re inebriated enough to let go of their inhibitions (or excuse their inhibitions), and ask what everyone is thinking.

For the first question, the answer is pretty easy. I’ve wanted to live and work here for a long time, albeit in different circumstances, but I couldn’t be happier being in this position at this point in my life.

For the second question, my answer is different depending on the person. If they’re my age or younger, I might say, “I looooved Sailor Moon” and talk about my anime otaku days in high school. If they are curious Japanese strangers, I would give the generic, “The history, the culture, the people.” Since applying to JET, I’ve had to think about my answer more seriously. So now, if the person I’m talking to is someone I am comfortable with, respect, admire, and take seriously, I will say that Japanese has broadened my horizons and opened doors for me. It gave me a unique high school experience which I was able to travel to Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Japan, and it gave me an opportunity to work in the video game industry. I like Japan because it changed my life.

For the third question, I’m still exploring that. Given my past work experience, localization of education games would be a great intersection, but localization in tech would be amazing, too.

Ceremonious exits

We’re in the middle of spring break, a two week transition between grades for the students, and for many teachers in Fukushima, being sent off to new posts all over the  prefecture. The prefecture is split into 3 parts, Aizu, Naka-dori (central), and Hama-dori (coastal). Young new teachers are sent across the prefecture from where they started from, and work their way back to where they decide to settle as seasoned and experienced teachers. This career track can take at least 6 years before the teachers can come back home, spending 3-4 years in schools in a different area, so many married teachers met their spouses through this way because they don’t have much time to socialize in other circles.

Today, the entire school will get together to listen to speeches from 15 teachers who are leaving and send them off. At the end of the day, there’ll be a teacher’s get-together for an excuse to get drunk. Drinks will be poured for teachers who are leaving, words will be shared, and with the encouragement of colleagues and friends, these teachers will move on to their next school to teach a new batch of kids, for better or for worse.

I certainly have some complicated feelings on this day. Meeting people truly is fleeting, and the experiences you have with them are so important in the limited time that we’re given, made even shorter by the circumstances of life. I’ve always felt socially awkward, an anxiety driven by my need to have deep connections and not being weird about it at the same time, so this past year I’ve been taking my time getting to know others and feeling okay with the space in between meetings. With these ceremonies, it feels as if the opportunities will no longer come, and with certain teachers, a feeling of regret that more opportunities were not made.

Last customer

A week ago, I went to the dry cleaners to ask about holes that I discovered in a couple sweaters after picking them up. The old lady that handles the customers was her usual cheery self. When I first met her, she was sweet, welcoming, and curious where I came from. She was also quite the business lady, and managed to sell me $28 worth of tickets for dry cleaning, which was good for about 10 items. On a subsequent visit, we chatted about the cold, and how cold it was even in America with the polar vortex that went on.

When I discovered the holes, I was surprised, and wondered if it was due to the dry cleaners. I had no proof, so when I took the sweaters in to try to negotiate some sort of free service, she won out with her years of experience with her machines.

“Our machines wouldn’t make a hole this big,” she said, as she poked her finger through the hole, and wiggling it around, evaluating the damage, or simply looking expertly.

“It must have caught on something. I can fix it for you for 600 yen.”

Really? $6? Can’t you just do it for me (for free?)?

After some Japanese that I couldn’t really make out, I decided to just have her fix it for me for 600 yen. I asked if she could possibly fix my other sweater as well.

“The hole is pretty small, you could probably do it yourself. Otherwise, I’d charge 500 yen for it, and you’d have to pay 1100 yen!”

Well, okay, at least she wasn’t out to take more of my money. So with that I left my sweater in her care, we did a bit of small talk, I said I’d be back a few days later to pick it up, and we said our goodbyes.

A few days later, I went back to pick up my sweater. I was met with a sign that said, “In mourning”. Someone in the house died! Immediately, I thought of the old lady, but I didn’t know anything about her family, so it could have been her husband… but there was no way I could know. I figured I’d give it a week before coming back because someone’s family at school also passed away and they were given a week off to mourn.

Fast forward to today, two weeks later. A sign on the shop said that if a customer had anything to pick up that it was fine to call on them, so I gave it a go. A younger woman came out and I told her I had left a red sweater at the shop. She couldn’t find it right away, so in the midst of looking for it, she mentioned that the old lady had passed away on the morning of the 10th in her sleep. Whoa! She asked me when I had given them the sweater, and I couldn’t remember exactly, but now I remember that it was on the 9th. I gave her my name and contact information so she could call me when she found it, and my condolences.

When I went to pick up the sweater, an old man greeted me, though he didn’t seem old enough to be the lady’s husband. I stumbled with my Japanese about coming to pick up the sweater, but he could tell it was “Catherine”. Surprisingly, there was a tag on my sweater with 600 yen on it. My sweater was fixed! “Looks like she fixed it, ” he said. I thanked him, paid, and gave him my condolences, and left.

Thank you, old lady, for finishing the job before you left us. My sweater is as good as new. Rest in peace.



Last Customer




Tomorrow is 3/11. I never imagined that I would be living in Fukushima Prefecture 3 years after earthquake and nuclear disaster. Wherever I go in this prefecture, there are reminders and stories of that event.

People from the town of Okuma live in temporary housing complexes that are scattered everywhere in Aizu-Wakamatsu.

A lady I’ve met from Okuma lives in a cramped apartment paid for by the government for a maximum of 5 years. In her old age, she’s wondering what she’s going to do after 2 years. Her mother lives in a nursing home in a town about an hour away.

A student who just graduated from my school is planning to study abroad in America to get foreign experience so she could someday work in an international organization to help others around the world. What prompted her to decide this as her path was when her house had totally collapsed during the earthquake, and she could do nothing, but take a role in carrying water for her neighbors who were in the same situation.

A teacher told a story that when the government was transporting food aid, his school/disaster safety area got way too much food, whereas Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures had nothing but rice balls, due to damaged roads. Much of the food had an expiry date, and because Japan is a stickler on food safety, they couldn’t officially distribute the food. The person in charge had to give the order that the teachers would have to finish the food, so many of them took it home to their families. This essentially equated to “taking one for the team.” People didn’t know what else to do.

On my travels to the coastal city of Iwaki, friends drove me to areas that the tsunami damaged. You could see cement blocks, gnarled iron, tiles, and other remnants of homes, schools, and government buildings. Most people from Iwaki left the area, while some, along with nuclear disaster refugees from other towns who moved there, stayed. A popular fish market that was damaged by the tsunami had since renovated and opened again for business, but not without having space for a museum that explains tsunami disaster information, actual debris from the tsunami, and reproduced scenes of the cramped spaces that people had to live in during the days after the tsunami. The most haunting part of the exhibit is a measurement of how high tsunami waves can be, from 2m and up, and at what point would a tsunami wave kill you. Basically, if you were hit by a tsunami wave that was waist high, at the speed that it travels, you’re dead.

I’ve been doing a lot of fun things while I’m in Japan, but it’s not lost on me that I’m here in Fukushima and that I can help. I try to support Fukushima agriculture as much as possible by buying food from the prefecture. Everyone is probably scared of traveling radiation through plants and vegetables, but no where else in Japan, or probably even other countries, gets tested for radiation as careful or regulated, if any, as in Fukushima.

I try to visit restaurants that are not chains as much as possible.

I read up on my town’s history to share with visiting friends, family, and other out-of-towners.

I’m not sure if I’d be as conscious helping Fukushima if I were placed elsewhere, so I’m glad I’m here and able to help the local economy.


Yakitori Truck

The red yakitori truck parks in front of the grocery store every Thursday. The smell of grilled skewered chicken parts tempts me every time. On one of my early encounters with the old man behind the grill, I got the nerve to ask him what the most popular selections were. He said it depends. And then he rambled something else with a thick accent. I nodded and smiled. He continued to talk and would glance at me every now and then for affirmation, get my thoughts. I couldn’t fake it anymore, so I told him I couldn’t understand and that I’m a foreigner. He stopped and looked a bit surprised, but because he was on a roll, he continued his energetic conversation. I heard him ask 宇宙人? An alien? Sure! I’m an alien. More rambling… then what I thought to be 「皆宇宙人」(“everyone’s an alien”) so I repeated it, half to confirm, half in agreement. He corrected me and this time I heard, 「地球人」(“earthling”). Was this guy messing with me? Was he throwing bad puns that old men are known for? I repeated what he said just to admit my failure to hear him carefully. Conversation died after that. I watched as another customer ordered several skewers, as opposed to my one as I was too shy to get more (fatty!). The following week, I worked up the courage to get 4 at once. The guy didn’t talk to me this time. Just told me that it’s going to take some time to cook. I went shopping, and came out to pick them up. He calculated my total, I paid, and left. I need to figure out some conversation fodder for next time to hear more of this thick accent. I can’t tell if it’s from Aizu…

Kids Wear Me Out

I’ve been walking all winter for my commute to school. It only takes about 20-30 minutes. Sometimes I bring my iPod with me, sometimes I don’t. On this day, I decided to be with my own thoughts and surroundings. I pass by a family that I often see taking their time walking to the elementary school, a mom and her two little boys, about 4-6. I come up from behind, trying to passing by them as usual, but this time, the younger boy decides to run. I play along, and start running, too. He sees what I’m doing, and runs as fast as he can. His mother calls out to him. I keep up my stride, so we’re both running at the same pace. He slows down, and so do I. I’m breathing hard, and he barely breaks into a pant! He looks at me, and I look at him, putting up a hand, “Hi-touch!”, something that elementary school ALTs say they often play. But he looks back at his mom, feels a bit disappointed that he didn’t actually win because it was a tie, and leaves me hanging. I glance back and see his family coming, and walk away before I feel even more awkward. I wonder if his mother called out because she didn’t want him troubling another adult, or if she called out because she was afraid I might kidnap him. Most likely the former.

English Cranium

So, I hope that the word “cranium” isn’t copyrighted because I’m totally using “English Cranium” as the name of this new English game I made for my students in the last month when I had absolutely no classes to teach. It’s the last few weeks before spring vacation, and the start of the new year, new homeroom, new grade, so I wanted them to have fun with English rather than do another comprehension worksheet that I tend to do.

The categories I decided to do are Spelling, Past Tense, Expressions, and Draw or Gesture, and the board is simple with just 12 spaces.

Since class is less than about an hour, give or take a 10 minute vocabulary test, I figured that students will most likely get only 30-40% of the content correct, so they probably wouldn’t reach the end in a 40-50 minute class. Assuming that they wouldn’t reach the end, I decided to place a point system to determine who wins, where each correct answer is worth 3 points, with the exception of the Spelling Challenge, which awards 1-3 points that correlate with word difficulty (which may or may not be based on how long a word is). Whoever does reach the end first gets 5 points. Also, if a question is answered incorrectly, students have the option to get 2 points if they choose to do an English conversation using conversation cards I picked up from ALT JET Connect.

I got to playtest it today with a low to mid-level class and a mid to high-level class. Playtesting games is always a challenge because the rules need to be clearly explained. In video games, instructions can be given interactively , but with my experience in games with lower budgets, instructions are often front-loaded and hard to remember, and then the player learns the rules by trying to break them, and the software will disallow any rule-breaking consistently.

However, paper-testing can be a bit hairy,  and rules can change at any moment, or won’t be consistently enforced.

So here’s a few things I learned from my first couple go-arounds with English Cranium:

– I planned early to have the students assemble into groups of 8 (2+ per members per teams of 4 in each group) and have them sit down before I explained the rules. This worked really well. Unfortunately, I only thought about drawing the way they should assemble their desks to make groups while they moved to their groups, so most were still milling about when I needed them to sit down. I corrected this in the second class by drawing the desk and seating configuration before they got up to move.

– Next, without further explanation of the game, I asked which kids had their birthdays coming up in order to choose the starting team. Understandably, I had kids already asking each other, “What are we doing, what are we doing?” Way to hype things up, but once they got to reading the cards, I heard things like, “This is hard…” ::sad face::

– Then I asked the starting team to pick a card of any color. I was hoping to teach the students the rules as they played the game, but unfortunately, there were 3 different groups, so different cards were pulled. I had to quickly backpedal and explain each card category and how they were played.

I forgot a few other things, such as telling the kids the name of the game, that opposing teams should ask the current team the card questions, and that the conversation cards should be asked among team members. While these problems were solved within the hour, I don’t see the students frequently enough to play this game as often in order to practice and review the content. This will probably be the only time the students will play the game, so I really wanted to make it easy to catch on as much as possible. The hope is that they learned something new, such as an expression, or reviewed something they should know, like spelling a certain word.

Update:I was reminded of Jeopardy, and while this is also a good game to play, I wanted the students to use English with each other moreso than listen to me talk.