Golden Week

Golden Week is almost upon us here in Japan. Golden Week refers to the first week of May when 3 national holidays all line up in a row, thus giving Japanese people one of only 3 vacation periods in the year. It’s often the busiest travel season and prices become even more exorbitant than usual during this time. Many companies allow their employees to take paid time off on the other weekdays during golden week, marking in many cases the only time a Japanese worker will take a day off the entire year.

This also comes off the heels of last week’s holiday, which is often thought of as the first part of golden week. 4 vacation days in 2 weeks is unheard of in Japan so people are understandably jazzed about the whole thing every year.

Many Japanese people take this chance to go back home and visit family. Some prefer to take a trip overseas for 3 days. With all the traveling and actual days off from work most people are in a decent mood. Also, like all time periods off of work suicide rates skyrocket during this time as well.

I still have no plans for the holiday. I might finally take my mountain bike out on the mountains. Unfortunately, this year the holidays fall on Saturday and Sunday, meaning we will end up one day short of the normal amount of days off.

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Tarento

Hee hee hee

Hee hee hee

This is Rola (ローラ). She’s a tarento. She’s very popular.

I really dislike Rola and her tarento peers.

Tarento in Japan are the people you will see repeatedly on any of the common TV shows and commercials on any given day. If you remember that show Celebrity Squares (and if you don’t, just imagine a game show with the same celebrities over and over playing tic tac toe) you will recall there was always a famous center square. Let’s say….. Whoopi Goldberg. However, Whoopi was on that show because she was a pretty big thing for a while. So, you have to remove that part of her career. Same with Gilbert Gottfried. So, take those two on that show, remove any previous fame they might have acquired, and now repeat that same format for every single thing on television.

That’s a tarento.

For example, Rola there can be seen any given second on my television from the time I get home at 5 pm until around 11 pm at night 7 days a week. She appears in numerous game shows, quiz shows, variety shows and commercials.  The reason I singled her out here is because she’s currently among the most famous tarento out there. She’s everywhere in today’s Japan culture.

There are only a handful of these people in style at any given time. I would guess there are about 25-30 major tarento at any given time with an upwards of 100 to fill in the holes. They seem to go in cycles of 5-7 years. So, after an average month assuming you’ve had your TV on every night you will have spent 150+ hours watching the same stupid people do the same stupid things.

It can really grate on one’s nerves.

The thing is these people have no talent. As I said there are only a very select few who were well known before becoming a talent. Most of them are simply popular because you’ve been told they should be popular. They are literally famous for being famous. It’s bizarre. Rola here, well she has the unique talent of sounding absurdly stupid, twirling her hair, carrying around a dumb little dog, and making her face look like a puffer fish. She also has an annoying laugh. Oh, and looking cute. I guess. Although I feel she has the kind of face only a pervert could love.

Oh wait. That’s not unique at all. I would venture to guess 95% of female tarento have the same schtick: act like a helpless idiot and look cute. The reason being this sort of thing kind of gets Japanese guys going. In the meantime men tarento tend to take up the role of telling the females what’s what and/or saying things they obviously know are wrong so another guy can correct them and get a laugh. It’s a strange world.

Most of the shows involving tarento tend to be variety or game shows. Imagine a 1970s American variety show, subtract any charisma the hosts might have had, take away any talent that ever appeared on it, and take away any thing that ever happened. What you’re left with is a Japanese variety show: a bunch of tarento sitting in chairs talking to each other.

Seriously, I’m not making this up.

So why do I have such dislike for tarento? They are on the TV every minute of ever day I’m at home on almost every channel doing nothing except sitting around and talking to one another. This wouldn’t be bad without the final variable: they bring absolutely nothing to the table. Imagine a world in which Paris Hilton sits around and talks with Kim Kardashian and friends for 5 hours a night and it was your only option on TV.

Did I say final? haha Silly me. I almost forgot, and they are super-uber popular!

I dare say that you, too, would take your disdain (if it exists) for Paris Hilton to a new level if you were living in that kind of world.

There it is, the Japanese tarento. Japanese people don’t seem to have any sense of irony (I’ve tested this. A lot.) but this is the greatest example of it I’ve ever witnessed.

 

You thought I was joking, didn't you?

You thought I was joking, didn’t you?

Myths

There are some prominent myths surrounding Japan, most very wrong. I’m not sure why but it always irks me when I see these things spread around the internet. So, indulge me as I take a minute to call them out.

First, and I’ve touched on this before, the myth that Japanese people speak English. This seems to be a myth spread by 3 groups of people: 1) Foreigners who live in Japan (Tokyo), and never leave the city to find out what Japan really is; 2) foreigners who visit Japan (Tokyo) for a week decide they have figured this out; 3) people whose entire knowledge of Japan comes from hearsay (about Tokyo).

I’ve only been to Tokyo a handful of times and spent less than significant time in the city. However, I can say that from what I’ve seen in the touristy areas of the city the shopkeepers and such have some basic English ability. Think of it this way: you work at the airport in Miami, Florida. How long do you think you’d make it before learning at least rudimentary Spanish? With so many English-speakers making their way to Japan (Tokyo) for getaways it only makes sense shopkeepers and the like would know some fundamental English.

Tour guides and other people of course will speak English, however roughly. It’s their job, after all. One should also be careful not to confuse “can greet people in English” with “speak English”. For that matter, it’s prudent to remember understanding a language is always much easier than speaking one. Even you, dear reader, could probably “understand” Mongolian if the person you were talking with used enough gestures and other non-verbal communication.

As far as the myth, Japanese people on the whole have very low to no English ability. I again would use Spanish in America. You can go to many cities near the border of Mexico or in Florida where many people speak varying degrees of Spanish. You will also find Spanish speakers around big cities of America, most prominently L.A. and to some extent N.Y. However, saying that Americans know Spanish is absurd. The majority know how to count to ten and say a few key phrases.

Can we please kill the myth that Japanese people know English? It’s something people have come to believe about the entire country because it’s only somewhat true about Tokyo, and as I’ve said before people seem to think Tokyo is Japan.

Myth #2: Japan is a mysterious place.

This is a common one. It’s probably most common with foreigners who are long-term residents here when discussing their initial and continuing interest in Japan or by Japanophiles itching to get a taste of “mysterious Japan”. My initial inspiration for this post was a rather decent blog on Japan things where the blog writer, who has lived in Japan for a long time, mentions his reasons as being in love with this mysterious country that is Japan.

Japan is not mysterious.

Japan is a country, like any other. Its people have quirks, habits, customs, and shared traits like any other country on earth. The language is notoriously vague, and this manifests itself in the character of the people themselves. However, it’s not mysterious other than just being very difficult for a non-Japanese native to penetrate the unspoken.

There are no mysterious fogs rolling around the low lands and making hidden temples eerily spiritual, as seen in your favorite movie about Japan (ok, there might be occasionally but 1) it’s rare and 2) no one I’ve ever met has seen this). There are some rather bizarre things going on with fashion and style. Mostly in Tokyo. What’s not reported is how most natives themselves consider this stuff bizarre and outlandish. Yes, 50 year old women walk around with Hello Kitty shoes and their cell phones sparkled up like a pre-teen, but this owes much more to the chauvinistic character of the society and the useless feeling many women experience than to any deep mystery about Japanese aesthetic appeal.

Temples aren’t mysterious; they are standard religious fare. The people aren’t mysterious; they are standard people with Japanese traits. The Japanese countryside isn’t mysterious; it’s just a bunch of mountains and trees separated by long stretches of rice fields.

There, now I feel better.

So, if you come to Japan or decide to live here just remember: learn Japanese, you’ll need it; and, after having spent time roaming around the country, if you find it’s a bit more earthly than you imagined it would be that’s because it is just like your home country, with different rules.

New School Year

As I stated in a recent post, spring in Japan signals change and new beginnings. It’s for this reason I suspect that new school year begins during the first week of April. In fact, many contracts (oh, the contracts in Japan) start around April. It seems to be a pretty common time for changeover throughout the country.

Teachers in a Japanese school change in the end of March and beginning of April. While some may move before the date, all teachers must report to their new schools on April 1st. Japan has a weird system of teacher placement. The school system in Japan is overseen federally and then divided by prefecture. Teachers have absolutely no say in where they will work or in what position with a few exceptions. Specially licensed teachers teaching at a junior high may stay in that certain field. However, their placement is still not their choice. For example, there is a teacher here who used to teach English at junior high. Had she wanted, she could have choose to remain an English teacher, only moving schools.

There is no set time frame when teachers will move to a different school. There are some time frames one might come to see as normal, but they are still far from set. New teachers will get 1-3 years at their first school. After this they might get another 3 year stint somewhere again. They will then be set into the merry-go-round of the system where the length of time is completely random. Of the teachers who left after last year the four with whom I interacted the most had years of 4, 6, 7, 8 at this school. It is rare to get above 6 or 7, and extremely rare to enter the double digits.

Furthermore, not every teacher is licensed in Japan. Or, I should say not every teacher is fully licensed. Some hold a partial license that allows them to teach but does not enter them into the system. I’m a little fuzzy on this system but from my understanding these teachers are allowed to teach at schools but receive less pay, do not build up a pension, and generally move schools every 1-2 years. I’m told because of the constant moving and bad pay it’s a very stressful life.

Speaking of licenses, the Japanese teaching one is different. There seems to be very little emphasis placed on learning how to teach. This is instead taught as an on-the-job skill. From what I’ve noticed students (prospective teachers) do only a few weeks of observation for “classroom hours”. For their final test they are required instead to show that they have a bunch of different skills to give to a school. What kind of skills? They have to be able to swim a certain distance in a certain time, they have to exhibit a certain proficiency in at least one instrument, they have to be able to run a certain distance in a certain time, they may or may not have a kanji and math test. Furthermore, I’ve yet to meet a teacher who isn’t specialized in something from college, which leads me to believe the way the system works is that you go to college like in the west, choosing what you want to learn (history for me, music for others etc.) and only at the very end of everything decide teaching is going to be your profession.

Many teachers don’t receive the full license because they can’t pass this test. For instance, they might not have a proficiency in a musical instrument.

So, the big kicker here is how teachers are chosen for what schools and for what they are chosen. As I said teachers have no say in this (I reserve the right to be wrong about this, as there might be some very back-room things going on where they have a LITTLE influence). Teachers find out they are leaving their current position and moving about 2 weeks before the end of the school year. They find this out by reading it in the paper. Yes, that’s right. The only way a teacher finds out they are moving is by reading it in the morning newspaper. They then get a few weeks to prepare mentally, during which time they are prohibited from telling students.

As for what class and position they will have in school, I believe this is partially random. The principle will decide, with some input from the teachers themselves, where teachers ultimately sit at school. I have some teachers who taught 6th grade one year and then 1st or 2nd the next. Music teachers, science teachers, and sometimes a math teacher for the upper classes are set positions. However, like everything else I believe the government helps decide this for them as well. I say this because there is one teacher here who prefers to be a music teacher but is “stuck” being a normal teacher. From what I understand it’s just that she got placed as a normal teacher and not a music teacher. Bad luck. Maybe next time.

The education system in Japan is mandatory only through junior high. High school is optional. Teachers (at least in Nagano prefecture) are eligible for either post when being assigned a new position. I have many teachers currently who used to teach at junior high in their last position. I can’t imagine how odd that must be to teach 9th grade one year and 1st the next. How is this even a good system? These require two completely different skill sets.

So there you have it, the quick, dirty run-down of the new school year shuffle. It’s not a perfect system nor the system I would choose to run, but it’s the way it is.