Thursday, 25 March 2010

Letter to the next ALT at my school

[The following letter is rather long, and for that I apologise. For budding ALTs, however, it may prove an interesting read.]

March 25th, 2010

Dear New ALT,

First off, welcome to Matsubushi Junior High School. You're a very lucky person to be working here, as the past year I've spent here has been very fun, and I'm sure yours will be too. The reason I'm writing to you is to let you know a few bits and pieces, give you some info on how this school runs &c. If you've any experience as an ALT already, most of the stuff I talk about you can probably ignore. Although, having said that, I guess you could ignore most of what I say anyway, whether you have experience or not. You see, the thing is, I started out here with no prior experience as an ALT, but I got along just fine. I didn't necessarily understand exactly what I was supposed to be doing every day, but, as I'm sure you'll find out, if there's anything you really have to do, or any place you really have to be, someone will probably tell you. If you will indulge me, however, I will try to explain summarily the workings of this school, what is to be expected of you as an ALT, and how best to use your time when you are not teaching.

Your Teaching Duties as an ALT

I had to teach 13 lessons a week: Four first, second and third year classes, and one “A Gumi” class. This means that every week, in theory, you will have to prepare four classes (where the first second and third year classes are taught four times each week, and the A Gumi class once). I say “in theory” because every week is different from the next (a teacher may want to cancel a class one week and have two the next) and each English teacher will ask different things of you too. (Taniguchi sensei, for example, the first year teacher, would most weeks expect me simply to turn up to class and help out with activities she had made herself, or might ask me to prepare an activity which she had already thought up. Ozawa sensei, however, the second year teacher, would expect me to plan a full lesson every week, of my own choosing and design. Hojo sensei, the third year teacher, would usually ask me to prepare a lesson or an activity on varying topics such as “Mother Theresa” or “Irregular Verbs”. So you see, each teacher has different demands.) Preparing a lesson shouldn't take more than an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more, and you can use a variety of media in your preparation for and execution of the lessons. Matsubushi has a school iPod with accompanying in-out lead which you are free to use in lessons (for music, slide-shows, movies &c), a bunch of computers with internet connection, photocopiers, printers, a laminating machine, the contents of the stationery room &c &c. I ended up bringing my own personal laptop into school every day, since I used it quite a bit in my preparations.

All told, you should be spending 17 hours, give or take, preparing for and teaching English lessons.

Outside the Classroom

Work for you begins officially at 8:10 with the first chime of the school's bells, and the beginning of the morning staffroom meeting. After the meeting you have free time (which I usually used to prepare for lessons or make photocopies) until 8:45 when first period starts. Each lesson is 50 minutes long with a ten minute break; 4 lessons before lunch; one or two after. Lunch is at 12:35; fifth period is at 1:40. School will end for you from 4:00.

Every day, on your desk, you should find a largish piece of paper with all the day's and the next day's schedule on it, made by Mr Nagai. If you can read Japanese, this sheet is incredibly helpful for knowing what's going on in the day, if there are any meetings you have to attend or anything. If you don't, you should get in the habit of asking somebody every morning, “Anything I should know today?” For example, often one day's lessons might be changed for another's, there might be an all-school meeting before first period, or the first years have a dental check.

When I started this job I found I had a lot of spare time. I called the previous ALT and I asked him, What should I do when I'm not teaching? And he told me, Do not read books. Study Japanese. And I have to say, that while I didn't spend all my spare time studying Japanese (I suppose I might have spent a little too much time reading emails or on facebook) I did find his advice to be pretty good. In the year I've been here, from talking with fellow staff and students and from hitting the books I've actually improved my Japanese quite a bit. Also, if you're seen to be studying in your free time rather than reading a paper-back, it'll garner you a little more respect.

Your free time after lunch is, on the whole, yours to do with as you please. Realistically speaking, this doesn't leave you a lot of options, since the school, in case you hadn't noticed, is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but it does mean you can moon around, drink coffee, and chat with the other staff uninhibitedly. If you're a smoker, there is a place some teachers go to just outside the main school gate. Lunch period is a good time to hang out with the kids, too; speak Japanese with them, let them practice their English &c.

After sixth period (or fifth on Tuesdays and Thursdays) the children all participate in club activities. You are, of course, welcome and encouraged to join in. There's soccer, fine art, kendo, basketball, track, table tennis and a bunch of other clubs. For myself, I did a little bit of soccer, and I joined the art club. It is a good way to get to know the children, and I have to say it was really fun.

In your spare time, also, it may be a good idea to make posters to go on the walls, promoting English, or English-speaking culture. There is loads of wall-space available to you, so feel free to do what you want.

What Will I Have to Teach?

Well, as I say above, each teacher will expect different things of you, from preparing and teaching a 50 minute lesson every week, to the mundane task of acting as a human CD player, reading from the textbook for a five minute slot. On the whole, though, at this school, I found it was the former rather than the latter, or, at least, I was very rarely relegated to the rôle of CD player, and more often than not I found myself trying to put together activities.

Without getting too much into details, the first year lessons should be utterly basic, the second year lessons simple to understand and the third year ones a little more challenging. The first years, you see, are being taught English under the assumption that they have never been taught it before. Though this is usually not the case – indeed, many of them will have studied a little at elementary school – they are nonetheless taught from their ABCs onwards. They will then study such riveting subjects as “days of the week” “first, second, third...” and “when do you wake up?” Some students will know everything already, others will struggle all year even at that level.

I'm not sure if it is that in the second year all students become awkward and quiet, or if it was just this year in particular, but they were, on the whole, very uncommunicative. This was excruciatingly apparent at the beginning of the year, though by the end they did soften up quite a bit. I think there are a few reasons for their initial behaviour. One, the English level they are taught takes quite a step up. A lot more is expected of them and some (if not most) are not prepared for it. Another reason, I guess, is that this is a very decisive year in their physical and mental growth. They are all thirteen or fourteen, and quite a few of them, regretfully, will be all too comfortable in the rôle of moody teenager. What to do, what to do? Well, I would suggest taking it very easy with them. As I say above, make the lessons very simple to understand. Treat them gently and earn their trust over the year. On a more specific note, I would advise against pair-work activities where girls are paired up with boys. They will, 99% of the time, not talk to one another. It is, like I said, an awkward stage for them. (I should say that the first and third years were fine with it, however.)

By the time the students have reached the third year, they attain a kind of ebullience; brought on, perhaps, by the conceit associated with being the biggest fish in the pond. You may find the students a lot more friendly and willing to ask questions in general. Another factor at play here is no doubt the impending high school entrance exams, in which English is one of the examined subjects. They are, on the whole, the most enjoyable year to teach, simply because they wish to learn, and the lessons are much more interesting and involved.

Some Ideas for Lessons

I have included with this letter some examples of the kind of things I used in my lessons.

As you can see the first year activity examples I have provided are centred around two very simple games, bingo and battleships. This kind of stuff, this kind of level, works great.

The second year lessons are a little more complex. Rôle plays, for example, I used quite frequently, with props and pictures to make them more interesting. With this World Trip lesson, for example, I also provided the students with photos of World locations and some pamphlets from a travel agents. The other lesson you see is a Valentine's Day one. At the end of that, I also gave them some pink cards and asked them to make valentine's cards which I delivered the following week. Pretty fun. It's a good idea if you can plan your lesson around a calendar event or cultural theme. Christmas, Hallowe'en, Thanks Giving... whatever you want to teach, you can. Historical figures and events, too, make a good lesson focus. A large part of our work as ALTs is, after all, the spread of culture.

The third year lessons should be a little more challenging. The two examples here are a listening one focusing on the life of Mother Theresa, and the other, “advantages or disadvantages” is a prop I used to get the students involved in a kind of debate.

Along with these handouts, a typical lesson might include a song (I sung Cold Play, Aerosmith, The Beatles and other stuff with the kids...). All you have to do there is provide the lyrics, practice the song then sing along. Pretty fun, and the kids seem to enjoy it. Another thing I do is I always try and use flash cards with the kids. Whenever you introduce new vocabulary, in a reading excerpt or a television clip, make some flashcards and drill the students with them. You can use them to review the previous week's lesson too.

I normally divide my lessons into three vague sections: warm-up/introduction, practice, and production. In the first section I will give them a warm-up exercise, using flash-cards, perhaps, from last week. Then I will introduce this weeks lesson, very simply. This introduction leads into the second stage, where I get the students to do a simple exercise (or exercises), or game(s) to reinforce the lesson's aim (in my Mother Theresa lesson, I cut up the speech and asked them to put it together again; in the Valentine's Day lesson they had to untangle the words in the hearts). Finally, in the third stage, I might get them to do some cool project, like a rôle play, a debate, or a short bit of writing. Something, in other words, which makes them exercise their creativity. Sometimes, these third stages can be a bit overwhelming for the students, so be careful to explain very carefully what you want them to do, and provide lots of examples.

The A Gumi class (the special needs class) I usually make the level equal to or lower than that of the first years. Word searches or crosswords, “concentration”, games like that.

When you make a handout for students, B5 is the usual size. A4 for A Gumi.

In all the lessons I taught I used to give away little stickers as prizes to those students who volunteered to answer questions. I made them myself, finding the images online, collating them in Word, printing them onto sticker-paper, and then cutting them up. Pretty simple, really, and if you have something like this you can give away in class, it makes the lessons go a lot smoother. On Hallowe'en I gave away a lot of sweets, again, to make the lesson go along better. With this letter I've included some stickers I made and some sticker-paper. Anything you buy which you use in class, by the way, you can claim back the expenses from the school. Talk to Shibata-san about this, or maybe Nagai-sensei.

The First Few Days of School

Right, so. You've arrived at your desk, you've introduced yourself to your fellow teachers (well, some of them) and you've listened attentively (if uncomprehendingly) to the morning announcements. What, may you well ask, should I do next? You might turn to the teacher at the desk next to yours, bursting with questions, only to find the desk empty, or its occupant deeply engrossed in work. You see, what you may find, at this point in the academic year, is that most of the teachers, if not all of them, except you, will be extremely busy, running about, ordering students around, talking on the phone &c, and if you do manage to elicit a response from one of them, they may well tell you that for now there's nothing you have to do, you can relax, look around the school &c. And though the season will probably be very nice, the sakura may even still be out, and the school is a fairly interesting place to wander about in, this is a whole day we're talking about, and you may want to spend your time slightly more usefully.

Right, so, the first thing you should do is to think about and plan your first lesson. A good idea might be an introduction class, where you talk about yourself, your hobbies, and your country, and then give the students a quiz on what you said. Bring along pictures of your family and friends, famous landmarks, your home, &c. Make lovely handouts and big clear flashcards, that kind of thing. Discuss this (and, indeed, every) lesson with the other English teachers both before and after preparing the lesson. Also, using these first few days to talk with the English team is a really good idea, both to find out what they want from you and for the sake of good relations. Another thing you might want to do is make a few posters to dot about the school. About you and your hobbies, some grammar points. Literally, whatever you want.

The Bus

If you are getting to school the same way I am, by bus, then you should know, the bus which leaves kita-koshigaya at 7:19 is a far more reliable choice than the one at 7:37. The latter is invariably late on rainy days, and sometimes late for no apparent reason. The 7:19 is a safe bet. There is another bus which departs kita-koshigaya between these two, but YOU DO NOT WANT TO TAKE THIS ONE. It doesn't go anywhere near the school, though it does leave from the same place at Kita-koshi. You only want to board buses which say they're going to 野田市 (Noda-shi) or 松伏給食センター (Matsubushi Kyuu-shoku Centre). My advice, ask the driver if you have any queries.

Perhaps you already have experience of this, or you know about it, but you really have to be on time for things in Japan. If you're even one minute late, it doesn't look good. Of course, if you are a little late once or twice, don't sweat it – they probably won't even mention it – but if you're regularly late about once a week, for example, it looks bad and they may get a little cross with you. So, take my advice and get the 7:19 bus, which should get you to school at 7:55 most days.

On another note, from the driver you can buy handy 5000 yen bus cards. They have an actual value of 5,850 yen, so that's quite a saving.

School Events

With this letter, I have included also a calendar for the academic year 2010-11.

The two most important events of the school year are undoubtedly the Induction (April 8th, perhaps your first day of work) and Graduation Ceremonies (March 15th). On these days you have to dress well. If you are a girl, I don't think there are (or, at least, I didn't notice) any specific requirements in dress code, but if you are a guy, you have to wear a dark suit with a white shirt and white tie. I have left my white tie in the middle drawer of my desk, so feel free to use it.

Other important events on the calendar include the Sports Festival (September 11th, a Saturday, you will get the following Monday, the 13th, as a day off) and the Singing Festival (October 22nd). On the day of the Sports Festival the students are divided into four large teams (red, blue, yellow, and green) and they battle it out to win first place as a team. The teachers are also each allocated a team to support, and they will help the team in training and rehearsals leading up to the event. On the actual day it is imperative that you support your team with unalloyed enthusiasm. I was also charged with taking photos. Very fun day, indeed. (There is also a separate Teacher's Sports Day on November 13th, where the staff room plays volley ball against the PTA team. I was unable to go, myself, but I hear it is very enjoyable.) The Singing Festival is another competition, this time between the four classes in each year. The three winners from each year will go on to sing in a concert in the local concert hall, Eroura Hall. Teachers and staff also sing two songs, though I was actually made to do the conducting, no doubt a demotion due to my awful singing. :(

The other events are staff parties (marked “SP”) and the Staff Trip. Of the staff parties, you only really have to go to the first and the last ones. (Though, if you can, I recommend going to them all.) At these parties, you will no doubt be called upon to make a speech, as everyone does, but it's all good fun, and you needn't go about trying to write something like the Gettysburg address. Just winging it should be enough. The Staff Trip on the 9th and 10th of October, I highly recommend you go on. I went last year, and it was flipping amazing. Great food, great places to visit (we went to the Asahi beer factory in Fukushima, and then a really beautiful cave near-by), a big party at a fancy hotel, really good fun, all in all... You should go. It'll set you back 10,000 yen a month (maybe for nine months) which is a little steep, but it is definitely worth it.

In addition to the staff trip, there is another excursion just for the members of staff who do not belong to a year group (called the 4th year, including the headmaster, the vice-principle, the Schedule Maker, Mr Nagai, you, and others, about ten in total). I went on this trip too, to a nice onsen on the Izu peninsula, and, again, it was worth it. (For the fourth year staff trip, the cost is 5,000 yen a month. This charge also covers the coffee and tea you are free to drink at school.) These trips, I feel, and the staff parties every so often are really fun, and I can't recommend participating in them highly enough.


Lunch at school costs 4,300 yen per month, payable to Ms Nakamura sensei.

The 10,000 yen per month for the school trip (also it covers some of the parties and presents bought for leaving teachers &c) and the 5,000 yen per month for the other trip is payable to Mrs Hirano sensei. Any money left over will come back to you at the end of the year.

If you can't afford to part with that amount of money every month, you are not obliged to. The lunch money, however, and 500 yen a month for coffee and tea, you will have to pay (unless you bring you own lunch and don't drink the staff room coffee or tea...). Honestly, though, if you can, you should. The staff trips were fantastic and the lunch is the cheapest you'll find, and pretty tasty too. The coffee's okay.

Talking of lunch, you will eat lunch every day in the staff room, with the headmaster, the vice-principle, Shibata san, Inoue sensei, Hirano sensei, and Mr. Nagai. They are all really nice people, and the vice-principle and Nagai sensei also speak fairly good English. Lunch officially starts from 12:35, but Nagai sensei, Kyoutou sensei (the vice-principle) and Kouchou sensei (the headmaster ) usually come a little later. Don't feel compelled to wait for them before beginning your meal; they are just very busy people and they certainly wouldn't want to keep you from your lunch. When they do come to the table, simply say to them “o-saki ni itadaite imasu” which means something like “Excuse me for beginning before you.”

This advice might seem superfluous, but I can't stress the importance of punctuality. Being one minute late in England is not such a heinous crime, as I recall, but in Japan it is not well looked upon; and whilst forgiven, is hardly something which will put you in anyone's good books.

Final Words

As a final word of parting, I should like to say that you get out of this job what you put into it. It is perfectly possible to idle away your free time at your desk and wait for four o'clock to come, without joining in the club activities and without spending time with the students. No-one will suggest for you to do otherwise. On the other hand, if you put in a little effort, prepare extra good lessons, and simply wander around the school in your free time, participating in the various clubs, running with the track team, reading in the library, asking the science club what's going on, painting with the fine art club, playing basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, table tennis or whatever, and if you offer to help with the various events which pop up now and then, your time at the school will be so much more enjoyable, and the students you teach will be that much more receptive to your teachings in class, and interested in what you have to say.

Above all else, enjoy yourself. This is a very fun school to be working at.

Yours sincerely,

G Dawg.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Introducing: Dead Heat On A Merry-go-round

[What follows is the introduction to Haruki Murakami's Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round, a collection of short stories as yet unpublished in English, released in Japan in 1985, the same year as Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of The World. Daniel Morales, at his website How to Japonese, and at, speaks much more intelligently than I could ever hope to on Murakami, and on this collection of short stories. I merely attempt a translation of what I found to be a fascinating read.]

I have a certain reservation about calling the sentences gathered here stories. That is to say, they are not stories in a technical sense.

When I go about writing a story, I take all the factual material -- I mean, if that stuff can even be said to exist -- and I throw it into a big pot, higgledy-piggledy, and melt it down until I can't even tell what it used to be. Then, later, I take a ladle of whatever grabs my fancy, and I run with it. It's more or less what you might call a story. Reality is, of course, much the same. The reality of a bakery, for example, exists in the bread rather than the flour it's made from.

The sentences collected here, however, have a fundamental correspondence with the facts. I heard a lot of people's stories: I wrote them down. Of course, in order not to receive any complaints, I played with a few of the stories' details, so they're not completely factual, but the important parts are 100% true. I haven't exaggerated any places to make the stories more interesting, and I haven't added anything. I shuffled some sentences around, but only so as not not to break up the atmosphere.

When I started out writing these kind of strung together sentences -- for now, let's just call them sketches -- it was with the intention of warming up before moving on to a bigger project. It also occurred to me that this business of getting down facts as factually as possible might somehow be useful later on. So you see, in the beginning, I had no intention at all of letting these sketches go to print. They were written on a whim, my only resolve to toss them into the desk in my study, where they would meet the same fate as countless other fragmentary writings.

However, while in the process of writing the third or fourth story, it came to be felt by me that each of them held a common trait, which was wanting to be told. That was, for me, a strange experience.

To give an example, when I'm writing, I select the bits of material I use pretty much without thinking, as my writing style or the development of the story requires. However, the words I write and the life I lead in reality do not always have a one to one correspondence (which is to say, my true self and my actual life do not match perfectly) and so however much I try a sediment will always collect up inside me of things I cannot use in my stories. It is from this kind of stuff I make my sketches. This sediment, then, at the very bottom of my consciousness, is just waiting for an opportunity to be given form and spoken.

I think one of the reasons these various residues gather up inside me is that I like to listen to other people's stories. Honestly speaking, I prefer to listen to other people's stories than to tell my own. Plus, I kind of feel like I have an ability to detect the extraordinary at the heart of them. The majority of people's stories are actually much more entertaining than my own; an average Joe's story especially is always much more interesting than some Indiana Jones' adventure.

This kind of skill, the ability to enjoy listening to another's story, doesn't necessarily have any tangible use. In the years I've spent writing, I've not had one experience where it's helped me out. I suppose there's a chance it might have once, but I can't remember it. People talk to me; I pay attention; and the stories gather up inside: that's all.

If this ability has in any way contributed to me as an author, I think it would be that it has made me a master of a certain kind of endurance. With extraordinary things, before they reveal themselves, I think, they have to pass through a filter of this endurance; and the sentences which go into the stories I write, for the most part, arise from this process. After all, extraordinary things are not the kind to turn on the tap, fill up a glass, and offer themselves to you saying, "Please, drink me!" There are times when all you have left is rain dancing. But that's another story. Let's take a step back.

In one of Carson McCullers' novels there is this gentle young character who's also mute. Now, this guy, whoever is speaking to him, whatever they say, he always lends a friendly ear; at times sympathetically, at other times in good camaraderie. Drawn to him almost without knowing why, people gather about him, make all sorts of confessions, and confide in him. However, in the end the young man takes his own life. Of course, it's then that everybody realises; they pushed all their problems onto him and not one person asked how he was feeling.

I mean, of course, my position and the mute guy's don't exactly overlap. With me, people tell me their stories and then I write them down. But, even so, what I want to say is that these sediments are definitely building up inside.

And it's for exactly this reason that, whenever I take a break from writing, this collection of material rises quite naturally to the surface of my consciousness. To me, these sketch-like materials feel like abandoned orphans. Being included in neither story nor phrase, their sleeping just goes on and on. It gives me bad vibes just thinking about it.

The thing is, even if I do write them down, it's not like I'll be able to let off any steam; and this last point especially, for whatever modicum of pride I possess, I have to emphasise: I am not writing and publishing these sketches so I can make myself feel better. It's like I said at the beginning, these sketches wanted to be written, and I sensed it. Whether or not my spirit can even be set free is another problem altogether, but as for the things I've written here, there's not even the slightest hint of salvation.

The notion that self expression can in any way liberate the spirit is a superstition; at best a myth; and as far as self-expression through the written word goes, it won't save anyone. If such a person existed, one who was aiming for freedom through writing, they would do well to stop. All expression is good for is breaking the soul down, and that doesn't get anyone anywhere. If you get the feeling you have got somewhere, well, you must be dreaming. People write because they can't help it. There's neither rhyme nor reason; and no light at the end of the tunnel.

So these sediments as per usual remain in me. Someday I might change them completely and include them in a new book. Then again, maybe not. No doubt if I did include them in something they would disappear to some dark inaccessible part of my soul.

With regard to what I'm doing here, there was no other way to bring together and give form to these things inside me. Whether this really is actual work or not, I don't know. If someone says to me, you should write a real novel, I can only shrug my shoulders and quote the oft-heard murderer's platitude, "All my actions are for the greater good." For me, there was no other way to present these materials than in the style given here.

The reason I call the sentences gathered here "sketches" is because they are neither fiction nor non-fiction. The material is completely factual, and the vehicle, the container, is entirely that of the novel. If, within the stories, you find something strange or unnatural that is because they are from reality; and if, in your turning of pages, you find yourself without need to pause, that is due to it being a novel.

Listening to other people's stories, and through them catching glimpses of people's lives, it becomes apparent that everyone is held prisoner by a certain kind of helplessness. The essense of this helplessness, as with the sediment inside of me, is the inability to go anywhere. The deal we humans get, and what we all become a part of, is the big human clockwork; always moving, but in completely predetermined ways. Kind of like a merry-go-round; always spinning in the same place, at the same speed. There's nowhere to go: No getting off, no transfers; no overtaking, and no falling behind. In spite of all this, however, on top of our merry-go-round, it seems as if we are locked in a fierce dead-heat, pretending as we are that the people we face are our opponents.

That life in certain situations seems strange or unnatural is most likely for this reason: That, in the overwhelming majority of cases, as soon as free will manifests itself, the supposed gift of humankind, it dies; and though we don't see it happening, it is from these dead spaces that the peculiar and unusual distortions in the structure of our lives come about.

Is what I think, kind of.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

狸 Tanuki

On Monday evening, whilst talking with my housemate over dinner -- a veritable feast of salmon baked in tin-foil with white wine sauce, brussel sprouts, enoki, and mashed potato -- she began telling me a curious story of her grandfather's, where he meets a tanuki -- what we might call a badger in England, or a raccoon in America.

As the story goes, her grandfather was walking alone through a forest one day, in the middle of a long journey, and in his travels he found himself eventually keeping pace alongside a young man. They soon fell into conversation, and the talk was so pleasant and engaging, such a welcome break from monotony, he was able to forget completely the burden he carried, the aches in his feet, and the long distance he still had to go. They talked for what seemed like hours, but eventually his and the young man's paths diverged, and so after bidding each other friendly farewells he found himself alone again in the forest. At first, of course, walking along merrily, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But soon enough he began to experience a strange kind of deja vu. A particularly haggard tree he had noted earlier in his journey suddenly loomed again on his right, and he was damned if it wasn't the same. No, no, he said to himself, it must just look the same. Not long after, however, he experienced a similar echo from his recent past, as he found himself crossing a stream he had crossed before. No! He exclaimed to himself, in utter disbelief. If this is the stream I crossed this morning, then, if I remember correctly, and if this is really happening, up ahead there must be a small shrine on the right-hand side. Of course, as he had unwillingly predicted, and to his horror, he saw soon after the same shrine he had walked past that morning.

What on Earth has happened to me, to bring me back here? He bemoaned to the forest. Dropping his pack to the ground he sat down and searched for the sun to see if he had only been dreaming and it was still morning. But, no; alas, it was well into the day, the sun deep on its westerly journey. How can a man walk in circles on a straight path? He questioned himself bitterly, deeply troubled. He scratched his head, and searched his mind, but he found it to be curiously empty. The only image he could recall was the smiling, wolfish face of the young man he had journeyed with. He tried to remember the conversation they had so enjoyed but to no avail. It was then that his suspicion was aroused. Surely I have been deceived by a fox or a tanuki, he said to himself.

Before shouldering his pack, he turned to the shrine and prayed fervently for the forest's protection. He clapped his hands twice and placed a rice cake at the shrine' s
small altar. Perhaps, he said to himself wistfully as he began his journey again, I should have done this before, and no sooner had the thought crossed his mind, then out of the corner of his eye he espied a lone tanuki staring at him from the depths of the forest. He turned quickly to look but the tanuki had vanished. Ah, he spoke to himself quietly, it was a tanuki, after all.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

迷宮の玄関 Entrance to the Labyrinth

Size, 6x8 inches.

I painted this last year, from my head, in acrylic. I guess I prefer to use oil paints, they're more versatile, but acrylics are blessedly quick to work with, and if you put in some time and think about it a little bit, you can get quite nice depth. I mean, you can make deep paintings. Shit, I don't know. But I do know a bunch of artists who are dead-set against acrylics, and I think they're crazy. To say nothing of a workman blaming his tools...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

平家物語と欽定訳聖書 Heike-monogatari and the King James Bible

Following on from a rather disappointing conclusion to the last yojijukugo, I guess I should give an example of a truly righteous one, from the Heike-monogatari. I read the Heike story a few years ago, in translation, so the yojijukugo was hidden from me back then. In truth, I found this a few months ago whilst trawling through some early postings over at no-sword. It's such a fan-dabby-doozy one though, I think there's no harm in revisiting it:

sho gyou mu jou
everything goes, nothing eternal

Just after this wonderful yojijukugo, still in the Heike, there is another one to be found, saying much the same thing:

jou sha his sui
the prosperous must decay

They are both in the first few lines of the Heike, here:

Here is
Helen McCullough's great translation:
"The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."

As you can see, she has translated 諸行無常 as "the impermanence of all things" and 盛者必衰 as "the prosperous must decline."

I was intrigued by her translation of たけき者も遂にぼろびぬ as "the mighty fall at last", not for any linguistic reasons, as I have virtually no experience of mediaeval Japanese (is that even the right nomenclature?) but because the phrase "the mighty fall at last" had a very familiar ring to it. Of course, it is from that phrase we are all too often apt to utter, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." This phrase, though, is incredibly elusive. Where does it come from? We use it often enough, but who said it first? Google was loath to offer any help. I searched for the phrase alongside The Iliad, Alexander Pope, and Shakespeare but to no avail. What I did notice, however, was that the searches were throwing up rather a lot of bible-orientated doom-prophesying sites (wtf, right?). Deciding that this phrase must be from the daddy of all books, the King James Bible, I used a brilliant website, which let's you search through and read the entire thing. Sure enough, the phrase, or near enough to it, pops up in none other than the book of Samuel. "How are the mighty fallen" is used no less than three times after the death of the first king of Israel, Saul. Now there's a story for you.

Props to The King James Bible, man. Apart from maybe Shakespeare's stuff or Johnson's dictionary, I'd say no book has influenced the English language more.

Monday, 1 March 2010

凡時徹底の由来は何か Where does Bon-ji-tet-tei come from?

Last month I wrote about this phrase, 凡時徹底, which appeared on my school's daily bulletin. Now, these four kanji compound idioms are fairly interesting; their origins are more often than not from Buddhist sutras or old Chinese classics, and it's quite fun if you can find out where they come from exactly.

With this one in particular though, I just couldn't seem to find any leads. All there was were blog entries or company profiles, giving wonderful definitions of the phrase and all saying what a great idiom it was, but with no references as to where it came from.

These two names though, イエロー・ハット(Yellow Hat) and 鍵山秀三郎 (Hidesaburō Kagiyama), kept cropping up everywhere. Yellow Hat Ltd. is a car accessories company, and Mr Kagiyama is its founder. Now, at first I thought it was just another company using it as a motto, but when I looked into it, it appears that Mr Kagiyama has actually written a book with the title 「凡時徹底」. All very well and good, I thought, this guy really loves this aphorism, he's gone and written a book about it. But on further investigation -- that is, after a lot more reading of bloggers gushing about how they will try very hard to do simple things well -- I found one blogger who was gracious enough to say this:

This phrase is not a yojijukugo; it is a coinage of Hidesaburō Kagiyama's; though it feels like a yojijukugo.

I think I will conclude then that this particular yojijukugo (if indeed it is one. The blogger above, at least, seems to discount modern coinages) is a very recent one, first seen in print in 1994.

Here, to finish, is Mr Kagiyama's authoritative definition of 凡時徹底, and sub-title to his book:

Endeavour with the commonplace, extraordinarily.