the nikku

reflecting on ESL/EFL and its relation to faith

Monday, September 29, 2008

Japanese Politics

This is the reality of politics in Japan. Some have gone so far as to
say the country is actually run by the mafia and politicians are just a
front - and that could well be the case.


Here the politicians do not actually matter. The country is run by the
bureaucrats - the middle managers.

*Scripted interview*

I was at first a little sceptical of this claim, until I went to the
prime minister's office to interview the previous incumbent, Yasuo Fukuda.

The problem with these kind of encounters is that Japanese civil
servants are always terrified that their man might put a foot wrong.
They try to leave nothing to chance.

A map of Japan showing Tokyo

For days before there are tortuous negotiations about what topics might
or might not be discussed.

When you arrive for the interview, there are more flurries and fuss from
the small army of men in suits, who fill the room long before their boss
makes an appearance.

On this occasion, they wanted Mr Fukuda to talk about the environment.
But they were worried he might not follow the script in his interview
with me, so they had written out what they wanted him to say and put it
on a teleprompter just behind my left ear.

We pointed out politely that this might look a little unnatural, but
they were having none of it.

The prime minister would make a statement before the interview began,
they said, to make sure he got all the points in, whether I asked them
or not.

"But we won't use that," I explained.

No matter, the great man was on his way.

*'Three, two, one, cue PM'*

He came in, sat down, was perfectly pleasant, and even had a few words
to say in English.

But there was no time for chat. An aide started gesturing from behind my
head, and barked out: "Three, two, one, cue PM".

The poor man started reading from the teleprompter. I had to keep a
straight face so as not to put him off. So did he.

*The poor man looked like a puppet and the fact that he was clearly an
intelligent, talented politician made the whole experience feel that
much more depressing*

It was quite obvious to both of us that this was not going to be used,
but he was doing what he was told.

By the time I was given the opportunity to ask my questions, I have to
confess the latent, bolshy teenager inside me had emerged.

I noticed he had five pieces of paper with densely typed briefings on
his lap, one for each question I was expected to ask.

I started asking them but in the wrong order.

That prompted much harrumphing and agitated shuffling of papers from the
audience of advisers clustered around us, but the prime minister, to his
credit, soldiered gamely on.

The poor man looked like a puppet though, and the fact that he was
clearly an intelligent, talented politician made the whole experience
feel that much more depressing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Clothing Announcement

With the weather getting colder, yesterday there was an announcement by
the school that all students can wear either the winter or summer
uniforms as they see fit. Just in case you needed someone to tell you
can now dress appropriately for the weather.

I think there's a reason people can't make decisions by themselves here.
Or else I'm just having another culture shock moment.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting a job and having a life in Japan (part 2)

Teaching in Asia usually doesn't require an ESL certificate because
there's such a huge demand for English teaching. But if you want "a good
job" (with interested motivated students, for example) you'll probably
need one. Also, I hear most English jobs in Europe require an ESL

I first learned Japanese at a local "Japanese Club". This was a place
with individual volunteer teachers (some had experience, some didn't).
It cost 100 yen per visit for rent and snacks - pretty cheap. It was a
good place to start, I found a textbook and stuff there. I guess those
kinds of places are fairly typical now in towns of over 100,000 people.
Although the exact details change (class size, fees, student to teacher
ratio, schedule, etc.) the concept is the same.

Right now I'm learning out of a college text I got from an exchange
student who left a couple years ago. A couple of older women from church
help me study from that book. Sometimes we study, sometimes we just chat.

There is also a test called the Japanese Language Proficiency Test
(JLPT) - nihongo shiken (日本語試験) in Japanese. I took this last year,
although I really don't care about tests. Like I was talking about with
my friend the other night, the test itself isn't really anything. It's
more of a goal to aspire to. In fact, when I started studying with these
two old ladies, I didn't know how to explain what I wanted to learn or
even how I wanted to learn it. But I knew how to say JLPT level 4. They
understood that. :)

If you want to learn Japanese, the community classes are relatively
cheap. And I guarantee you'll meet someone here who wants to teach you
Japanese if you just ask. If you can find a big bookstore like Kinokunia
(think Barnes & Noble in blue with no coffee or chairs), I guarantee
you'll be able to find a textbook. And between a textbook and a good
friend, that'll be plenty to get you started learning.

Also, don't study your brains out when you live here. Even now I can
hardly do more than one lesson a week (sometimes less). Life is just
busy, and while studying is important, it's also important to live a
sane life and have some friends.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting a job and having a life in Japan

I just finished writing my umpteenth email to some one about "how to get
a job in Japan" and "live in Japan". I'm tired of writing it over and
over again, so here is an excerpt from my most recent email. If anyone
asks me again, I'll copy and paste this to you with a few modifications
for your situation.

Recent email starts here:

There are two basic kinds of English jobs in Japan.


I'm sure you've heard of these. They're small businesses or big chain
stores that specialize in teaching people conversational English. Their
main clients are housewives, 20 somethings looking for purpose, students
who want extra English, and small children whose parents are trying to
give them a head start.

Classes are usually small - under 10 people. Hours are usually
afternoons and evenings Tuesday to Saturday.


ALT stands for Assistant Language Teacher. In the public system, ALTs
usually work at multiple schools and are a kind of cultural resource for
homeroom teachers. They don't do much planning, they help the teacher.

Applications for public ALTs:

The application process tends to hire young "internationally minded"
college graduates with no experience in actually teaching. So large city
governments hire head hunters. If you want to work in a large city like
Osaka or Tokyo, try an ALT recruiting agency like


You could also try smaller, more personal websites like: or

As for my major in college I was a computer science major with a
journalism minor. It wasn't quite related to English teaching.

About needing a certification, it's true that you don't NEED it, but
even now I think about going back to get one. In fact that's probably
what I'll do when I'm done here. On the other hand, I've met people here
who were education majors with about 3 different ESL-type
certifications, and they still say they don't feel prepared to enter a
classroom. In short, a certification defiantly doesn't hurt, but don't
expect it to be a magic ticket either. You could teach and then get a
certificate, or vice versa.

About learning Japanese, I was never required to learn Japanese. But I
live outside the major metropolitan areas, and I believe it's made my
life in the office and outside school much easier. There are people who
live here for years without being able to speak at all, but I don't know
how they stay sane.

If you're going to be living in a major city like Tokyo or Osaka, many
people do speak English - both at work and at large. And I think it's
possible to "get by" without speaking Japanese. But I still wouldn't
advise it. It says "I don't care about you or your country".

You can learn Japanese as you go, but working full-time and studying at
the same time is hard. However, if you think you can just sit and learn
Japanese from the people speaking around you, I don't think that's true
either. You can learn some words like that, but the people I see who
learn that way end up just shouting words (not sentences) at people
years later. To be able to express yourself you need to study and then
use that new knowledge in daily conversation with real people. And of
course, I learned most of my Japanese after I moved here.

Anymore questions? mail me or write a comment.

Good luck!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What a day!

Well, it's been a day today. We caught a student skipping school in the
morning, and over lunch some freshmen decided to set off fireworks (out
the window) in the hallway. Why does everything happen a once?